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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 2

Howard Haycraft - The In-Between Years - Page 1

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Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head? I call it the detective fever.—WILKIE. COLLINS, The Moonstone

IT is a curious fact, deserving of attention by historians, that virtually all the detective stories worth the name have been produced by those (doubly fortunate!) nations that have longest enjoyed the privileges of democracy. The causes and implications of this highly interesting relationship are discussed fully in a later chapter (Chapter XV: "Dictators, Democrats, and Detectives"). For the present, suffice it to say that the relationship does exist, that it is no chance parallelism but direct and causative, and that it is intimately bound up with the whole body of civil and individual rights.
After Poe, the next significant appearance of the detective story occurred in France. This is not the time or the place to examine the violent, often tragic, history of democracy in France, its failures and resurgences, its hopes for the future. It is enough to know that the French love of liberty and the proclamation of civil rights under the First Republic gave direct rise, in the early 1800's, to the first police division organized solely and purposely for criminal investigation—the semi-municipal, quasi-national Surete Generate—and that somehow this body managed to survive the multitude of political changes in succeeding years to become one of the world's great crime bureaus. It was the Surete that gave the roman policier its next and direct impetus.
Of all the early agents of the Surete, the best remembered, if not necessarily the most important, was Fran-c,ois Eugene Vidocq (1775-1857). The son of a poor baker, Vidocq became at an early age—if his lively reminiscences are to be credited—a thief, circus performer, vagabond, galley convict, and, above all, a jail-breaker without equal in the annals of crime. Never outside the pages of Dumas, whom he antedated and without much doubt inspired, were such breathless escapes, such gallantry, such daring. Suddenly the prince of felons became the king of thief-catchers, by the simple expedient of making a bargain with the legal authorities to place his wit, ingenuity, and chiefly his knowledge of the underworld at their disposal, in return for absolution of his own offenses. That this made him a sort of glorified "pigeon" seems to have bothered no one. (The plain truth is that he was probably neither the colossal rogue nor the great detective that he made himself out to be.) Nevertheless, he served the police for eighteen years and claimed to have placed 20,000 culprits behind the bars in that time. In 1827 he retired at the age of fifty-two, and in 1829 he published his Memoires, in four volumes of better than four hundred pages each, crowding into his dramatic paragraphs more bizarre adventures than any one individual could conceivably have experienced in a single lifetime.
If Vidocq was the colorful liar that this work indicates
—if the work itself, as seems only too likely, contained vastly more romance than fact—then perhaps he, rather than Poe, was the actual if fortuitous inventor of the detective story! Certainly, his accounts of his supposed exploits possess most of the essentials of modern detective fiction, with the natural exception of later scientific inventions. Aside from this interesting technical consideration, Vidocq played a major role in the genre merely by existing and writing. As Frank W. Chandler has said in his admirable study, The Literature of Roguery: "It was necessary that a Vidocq should issue his Memoires for the literary transition from rogue to detective to be definitely effected." A whole generation of later writers became indebted to him as a source. Poe, as we have seen,
•knew his Vidocq well enough to dispute him; and scores of other authors drew on the Memoires to a greater or lesser degree, including, among many, Hugo, Balzac, Dumas, Dickens, Collins, and Doyle. The fullest and most direct fictional expression of the Vidocq influence, however, occurred in the works of his compatriot, Emile Gaboriau.

Emile Gaboriau was born at Saujon, in the Charente-Inferieure, on November 9, 1833, the son of a notary. To escape becoming a lawyer, which his father wished him to be, he enlisted in the cavalry and in seven years advanced to the post of regimental sergeant-major. Despairing of further preferment, he left the army at the expiration of his term of enlistment, and made his way to Paris, where he found employment as a clerk in a forwarding office (some authorities say a carriage factory). In his spare hours he earned a few welcome sous by writing mottoes for confectioners' cakes, and popular songs for street singers. Some chance verses addressed to Paul Feval, a popular feuilletonist of the time, brought him to Feval's attention, and he became the writer's secretary.
Now, the feuilleton—meaning literally "leaflet"—was a peculiarly French institution, a sort of "literary supplement" to the newspapers and journals'of the day. Originally a hodgepodge of gossip, essays, criticism, puzzles, jokes, and the like, it came more and more to be used by struggling editors as a vehicle for maintaining circulation, by printing in serial form sensational novels of the yellow-back variety, turned out at white heat by literary hacks. Gaboriau's "secretaryship," we may readily imagine, consisted in what a less polite age would call "ghosting" for his hard-driven patron. When he was not writing he was haunting the police courts and the morgue in search of material for his master, whose specialty was the criminal romance.
Eventually the connections he had established enabled him to become a feuilletonist in his own right, and sometime in 1859 he began turning out daily instalments of lurid fiction under his own name for the half-penny press. Each episode had to be written exactly to length, and each was required to end with some suspenseful incident to carry over the reader's interest to the morrow. Gaboriau, in common with his fellow-slaves, wrote on sheets of paper cut to a determined size, with a messenger

Chapter 2 Page 2

 

Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942     Layout © R.D. Collins
Howard Haycraft

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