“Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” considered to be Hoffmann’s supreme achievement, may be the earliest mystery story. It served also as the inspiration for the opera Cardillac by twentieth century composer Paul Hindemith. Like many of Hoffmann’s tales, it provides a psychologically accurate portrait of a pathological personality, in this case a split personality, or a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, the master jeweler Cardillac. Written with attention to historical accuracy, and the creation of the mood in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, the story is also a masterpiece of narrative technique, using a minor poet and spinster of advanced age, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, as the agency by which the fiendish criminal-artist is brought to justice.

A lengthy tale, “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” includes a narrative about a rash of notorious poisonings and the consequent creation of a special tribunal in Paris to hunt down malefactors. This reference serves to explain the mood of Parisians, who are almost hysterical even before the murders are perpetrated by Cardillac. It also calls into question the kind of justice available in society when a citizenry is roused, a query pertinent to events not only in Hoffmann’s time but also in the present age.

In the main story, Cardillac’s apprentice Olivier, who has Mademoiselle’s special “pet” as a baby, and Madelon, the jeweler’s daughter, are wrongfully accused of the theft of Cardillac’s...

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