In the development of the modern detective story, Émile Gaboriau’s two fictional investigators, Père Tabaret and Monsieur Lecoq, remain two of the most important transitional figures between Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (with the possible exception of Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff). Furthermore, between them, Tabaret and Lecoq represent the two types of detectives that have dominated the genre.
Tabaret, the hero of Gaboriau’s first crime novel, L’Affaire Lerouge (1863, serial; 1866, book; The Widow Lerouge, 1873), is the talented amateur who, like Sherlock Holmes, fights crime to escape boredom and exercises talents that go unused in the everyday world. He works outside official channels, entering the proceedings either at the request of the injured party or after the authorities have confessed their bafflement. Monsieur Lecoq, protagonist of Gaboriau’s four other detective novels, is the professional police officer who works efficiently within the system but must struggle almost as much with the bureaucratic rigidities of the institution and the mediocrity and jealousy of his colleagues as he does with the criminals. This is especially evident in Gaboriau’s most famous novel, Monsieur Lecoq.
Although Monsieur Lecoq was one of Gaboriau’s last novels, it describes Lecoq’s first case. He is, therefore, much more believable and human than the remote, mysterious figure who appears and disappears in the other works. Monsieur Lecoq is the only book in which Lecoq is physically described, minus any disguise, and given a personal history. As a young man from a rich background, Lecoq suddenly becomes penniless and is forced to take a variety of relatively menial jobs. To alleviate boredom, he amused himself by inventing theoretical crimes.
After describing one crime to his last employer, a famous astronomer, Lecoq was promptly fired and advised that “When one has your disposition, and is poor, one will either become a famous thief or a great detective. Choose.” Thus, Lecoq has that touch of criminality that many detective writers have found an essential ingredient in the makeup of their fictional heroes. Lecoq is no armchair detective; he follows the evidence actively, sparing himself no discomfort or danger. Unlike many subsequent detective stories, the solution in Gaboriau’s novels comes in bits and pieces. There are few moments of sudden revelation, only the dogged tracking down of clues. As one aspect of the case becomes clear to Lecoq, it raises new questions that must, in turn, be laboriously answered.
Lecoq is not only a superlative detective but also a most interesting personality. Observing his reactions to his own investigation is almost as interesting as the investigation itself. Not only must Lecoq deal with the criminal, he also must deal with the police bureaucracy and...
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