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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 2

Howard Haycraft - The In-Between Years - Page 2

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 waiting in the hallway to carry each completed leaf to the printer. Thousands of words came from his pen each day, with no opportunity for revision. It is small wonder that he produced twenty-one novels in thirteen years. It is no more surprising that he died of exhaustion at thirty-nine, on September 28, 1873, just when he seemed to have achieved the ease and security to write as he pleased.
Seven typically artificial and not very successful novels of military and fashionable life had come from Gaboriau's too facile pen before VAffaire Lerouge began its serial career in a dying newspaper called Le Pays in 1866. In the sense that it was the first story of novel length to employ detection as an important theme, it is perhaps entitled to the appellation "the first detective novel"— though it bears little resemblance to what we mean by the term to-day. (Of this distinction more will be said later.) L'Affaire Lerouge did not save Le Pays, which ungratefully proceeded to expire forthwith, but it did attract sufficient attention to win Gaboriau a contract with the newly founded Petit Journal. In the seven years that remained of his life he produced fourteen more novels, including four in which more or less detection figures: Le Dossier 113 (1867), Le Crime d'Orcival (1868), Monsieur Lecoq (1869), and Les Esclaves de Paris (1869).
The reader will notice that a distinction has been implied between the full-blown detective novel, concerned with detection and nothing else, and the novel that merely makes use of detection as.one of several themes. Gaboriau's tales all belong to the latter classification. When he sticks to detection, it is excellent detection indeed; but in no one of the five novels which have been named did he succeed in so limiting himself. In Monsieur Lecoq, which many critics consider his masterpiece, he put all the detection into the first volume, devoting the entire second half to the narration of a tedious family chronicle. The family, it may be noted in passing, is the basis of most of Gaboriau's novels, as it was of most French fiction of his time. Family scandal is at the bottom of virtually all the problems investigated by his detectives, and the feuilletonist who knew his concierge and shop-girl audience missed few opportunities such a subject presented for melodramatic digression. The proportion of detection is no greater in the other novels. Furthermore, the solution by the detective is seldom the apex of the story. There is no single rise of action to a grand denouement. We know the guilty party before the book is half through, and from that point forward we read (if we are able!) another story, or several sub-stories, about the same characters.
The chief detective of L'Affaire Lerouge is PERE TABARET (sometimes called "TIR-AU-CLAIR"), a wealthy bibliophile who finds his inspiration in the memoirs of police agents, thus continuing the Foe formula of the amateur dilettante of crime. Passing reference is made in the early chapters to a police subordinate called LECOQ, whose name and circumstances (he is stated to have entered the detective service after a criminal career) immediately suggest his kinship with Vidocq. So, too, do many of his methods in the later tales, particularly his adeptness at disguise.
LECOQ disappears from L'Affaire Lerouge after a few chapters (a distressing habit of feuilleton dummies) but returns to replace TABARET as the detective protagonist of the four remaining novels. Valentine Williams has given an appreciative description of his edifying effect on the turgid narratives: "Through the jostling throng of desperately wicked dukes, of incredibly noble maids, of banquiers vereux, Monsieur Lecoq, simple agent of the Surete, comes stepping, fresh as a bridegroom, un beau gars, a I'oeU clair, a I'air resolu, or, as casual visitors saw him in his careful disguise, a sober personage of distinguished appearance, with his gold spectacles, his white tie, his mince redingote. Against a canvas of tiresome puppets he stands out as a living figure." * Truly the stories come to life when Lecoq is on the stage. The difficulty is that he is too often in the wings or hiding behind false faces. In the conflict, described by Williams, between LECOQ and his background, we find the key to Gaboriau's chief failure according to the standards of modern detective fiction. In his attempt to mix incompatible elements—the lurid unreality of the yellow-back and the cool logic of detection—he violates one of the prime requirements of the form: the semblance, at least, of plausibility. ("A sense of verisimilitude is essential to the detective novel." —Willard Huntington Wright.) The mesalliance he thus unwittingly and unfortunately began has persisted in the French detective story virtually to this day, to its undeniable detriment.! Nevertheless, Gaboriau's logic—when he does give it rein—is definitely of the better sort; it is only the backgrounds that are at fault. Many of LECOQ'S devices are still in use to-day, although of course in altered and generally amplified form. His test to tell whether a bed has been slept in, the example of the* striking clock to show that the hands have been set back—to mention but two— have been employed in principle at least by more fictional sleuths of a later day than one would care to estimate. There is nothing really new in LECOQ'S reasoning; it stems directly from DUPIN. But Gaboriau, drawing on his well-filled police-cotfft notebooks and on Vidocq's Memoires, elaborated Foe's abstractions with fresh illustrations and variations. (SHERLOCK HOLMES, it is true, scorned LECOQ as "a miserable bungler." But in the same breath he dismissed DUPIN as "a very inferior fellow." For all his exemplary qualities, it is to be feared that the Baker Street seer was not immune to professional jealousy 1)
Because of the diverse elements in Gaboriau, it is difficult to classify the ultimate result with any degree of exactitude. He presented plot and detection virtually as separate entities. On the former side, his work was purely physical; on the latter, almost as elaborately mental as "Marie Roget." The issue of this mismating was a divided rather than a balanced detective story. Any final evaluation of his contribution must therefore distinguish carefully between promise and achievement. By a paradox that would have appealed to his French mind, his reputation to-day rests largely on the fact that he is so seldom read! For Gaboriau is one of those authors whom everybody talks about but whose works (if the truth be told) are virtually unknown. Few modern readers would have the patience to abide the tawdry puppetry, the fustian, the cheap sensationalism, the dull and irrelevant digressions, the dreary and artificial verbiage that are the feuilletonist at his too-frequent worst, in order to get at the few grains of highly competent detection. This is perhaps as well, for (to continue the-metaphor) the greatest value of the grain was its germinal quality.
Of the author himself, Valentine Williams has said the kindest and most understanding word: "Running through the coarse woof of plot and counter-plot which the concierges demanded from his stories for their daily sou, we may discern the scarlet thread of a brilliant mind." It is for this implied rather than fulfilled promise that the world honors Gaboriau; for this, and for the impetus he gave the detective story in his own time. Had he lived to write the works that he planned, his honors on both scores would almost certainly have been greater. Even as it is, generations of later detective story writers are in his debt. He blazed no really new trails, but he tilled in honest peasant fashion a great deal of virgin soil.

During almost identically the same years that Gaboriau was reintroducing the detective story to France, another young man, geographically removed by only a narrow channel of water, but oceans distant in literary stature, was making a single but memorable contribution to the genre in England.
William Wilkie Collins was born January 8, 1824, in Tavistock Square, London, the eldest son of William Collins, R.A., a well-known artist. His younger brother, Charles, also a writer, married Charles Dickens' sister. Wilkie's schooling was of a random nature, several years being spent with his parents in Italy and in travel. The boy took some interest in painting, was apprenticed to a tea firm, and was called to the bar. He never married. When he was twenty-four he published a two-volume memoir of his father. In 1850 his only historical novel, a forgotten and rather inept romantic piece called Anto-nina, with an Italian background based on his travels, made its appearance. A year later he met Dickens, an event of the utmost significance to both men. Not only did they collaborate in a number of works; their influence on each other was great. This is remarkable in itself. Though Dickens affected almost every other writer of his time, Collins has been declared the only writer who influenced him.
In the opinion of many able critics, in fact, Collins was almost Dickens' equal in characterization and was often his superior in technical plot construction. The vital difference between them was one of background and breeding. Dickens had the "common touch," Collins was "genteel"—and the words spelled the distinction between greatness and near-greatness. Collins recognized the discrepancy (but not the cause) and tried to overcome it, but without success. Ironically, it was his attempt to write polemic and reformist novels in the manner of Dickens that marked his popular and literary downfall. From high esteem in his early career, when he was sticking to his last, he fell to obscurity in his last years and died ungratefully forgotten in his own lifetime. Recent decades have seen a deserved revival of interest in Collins, and
* Valentine Williams, "Gaboriau: Father of Detective Novels," National Review (December, 1923).
t Some one has pointed out that—in addition to his direct leaning on Poe and Vidocq—Gaboriau derived in almost equal portions from two great opposites among his countrymen: Voltaire and his Zadig, and Eugene Sue, whose sensational mysteries had their greatest vogue a score of years earlier. As a matter of record, characters designated as detectives appear in some of the Sue stories; though it can scarcely be claimed that the acts they perform are detection, any more than, on the other hand, are Zadig's feats of abstract reasoning.


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

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