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AEW Mason - Meet Hanaud

A fascinating insight into the character written by the author himself

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THE author who sits down to write a detective novel, as sooner or later most of his contemporaries do, must make up his mind upon two questions before he starts. First of all: is his novel to consist simply of a conundrum and its answer, a prolonged conundrum and a brief surprising answer? Or are both conundrum and answer to present one facet of a story which shall seek to enchain the interest of the readers on the different ground of the clash of its characters and the diversity of their interests ? The Purloined Letter, by Edgar Allan Poe, is the classic example of the first kind; the novels of Gaboriau and Sheridan Lefanu are outstanding examples of the second. To-day a different formula has come into being. Where the author's aim is to keep the reader guessing, where the puzzle, the whole puzzle, and nothing but the puzzle is his intention, the crime is discovered in the first chapter or thereabouts, the circumstances are made conventional so as not to distract the reader from the riddle; and the characters one after the other are shown to be all so obviously suspect or all so obviously innocent that no one shall be able to spot the criminal until in his last words the author hands him over to the police. But the sophistication of the times is making it extremely difficult to keep the secret. The public names the rabbit as often as not before the conjuror produces it from his hat.

    There are still disciples of that school, all the same. When I was in Australia some months ago a professor of literature at one of the universities there thought the detective novel of sufficient importance to devote a lecture to it. He took a very severe line. A piece of detective fiction must be, according to him, as near to a problem of Euclid as a geometrical mind could contrive. It must follow a formula. There was to be nothing of interest outside the problem, neither horror nor remorse, nor love, nor any of those emotions and qualities which in life twist and alter the most carefully designed plans and provide the novelist with something to write about. There should be a mysterious crime set in a commonplace environment and a scientific superman of a detective who works out the solution on the strictest lines of logic. He did me the honour to single me out as an exponent of a quite improper system which allowed the shivers and excitements of the story itself to interfere with the cold microscopic analysis which separates the unimportant elements of the case and isolates the crime. The author then has to decide whether he shall present a riddle which only a master-mind can solve or whether he shall tell a story of which a crime and its solution forms a part.

    Upon this choice will depend the nature of that very essential person the detective. Hanaud made his first bow to the public in the year 1910 and he was in my intention a deliberate revolt from the superhuman passionless amateur who at that time, owing to the superb example of Sherlock Holmes, exclusively held the field. Hanaud came into existence in this way. One day in the year 1905 I drove down to dine at the Star and Garter Hotel, now a hospital, at Richmond. In one of the dining-rooms my companions pointed out to me two names scratched with a ring on the glass of a French window which overlooked the garden and the river. The names were those of Marie Fougere and of her maid, names which at that time had no meaning for me. But I was told the story of a murder at Aix les Bains in France. The woman murdered was Marie Fougere, and the maid of whom for many years she had made a friend was one of those implicated in the savage crime. The story of what came to be known as At the Villa Rose gradually took shape in my thoughts, and since the detection of the guilty person was meant to be an essential though not an exclusive part of it, a detective had to be provided. Since the crime took place in France the detective must necessarily be a Frenchman, and the kind of detective had to be decided upon. It was determined that he should not be a man with a laboratory at his elbow, nor a man with enough law and science in his brain to be a Lord Chancellor and a Regius Professor of Pharmacology rolled into one. I did not want him to be a private detective who was always welcomed with open arms by the high officers of Scotland Yard because they knew that he would tell them where they went wrong and nobly let them take all the credit in the end. There is, of course, apart from the immortal Sherlock, the highest precedent for that type of man. He descends in a long and famous line from Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin associated inseparably with The Mystery of Marie Roget, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, and The Purloined Letter. Didn't the Doge of Venice himself, the supreme Judge of the Great Republic, say in Shakespeare's play that since the little affair between Shylock and Bassanio raised difficult points of law which he was totally incompetent to settle he had called in a bright young barrister from Padua to keep him straight? But I had my doubts, none the less, as to whether the time hadn't come when the police might actually solve a crime or two without any of the brilliant outside help which seems always at their disposal. The reader accustomed to the amateur might object, but the tax-payer in him would be cheered by the knowledge that his money was not being spent in vain. I was besides acquainted with a very distinguished professor and amateur criminologist, who on the occasion of the Merstham Tunnel Murder did somehow manage to find his way in a porter's uniform into the signal-box at the mouth of the tunnel. Unfortunately, he wore his hair overlong, and he had not cut it, so he was chivied out by the police before he could so much as set a hand upon a lever.

    My Monsieur Hanaud, then, was to be a professional French policeman holding high rank in the detective branch, I went with some care through the memoirs of M. Goron and M, Masset, successive chiefs of the Surete- General in Paris, and I had the good fortune to know Monsieur Beyle, a very great French detective who died prematurely a few years ago. Out of these origins developed the kind of composite portrait which characters in fiction usually present. That is to say, a quality is taken from this one, a physical feature from that one, some little gift or idiosyncrasy from another, until an individual person is gradually made to live who is complete and true to himself rather than a likeness of any one single being whom you and I may have met. Personally speaking, I have never met Hanaud in the flesh, although I should like to, and should recognize him if I did. For I have in the course of a good many years lived entirely in his company for a good many months. I imagine him as just a working detective of the higher grade, grounded on the routine of police work, with a nimble mind; and with that extra flair or instinct which, sharpened by experience, brings a man to the top of his profession. I am sure that his outward appearance does not convey a sense of extreme acuteness. He is not outwardly alarming. He would not have frightened Caesar by his lean and hungry look. He is comfortable and coaxing, and rather like a famous actor, now dead—the younger Coquelin. The subtle brain is hidden behind the mask of conventional aspect. I have two descriptions of him. One by Mr. James Frobisher, a not particularly observant young lawyer, who makes most of the possible mistakes in the story of The House of the Arrow. Frobisher speaks of Hanaud as a burly man of middle age, with a head of thick dark hair and the round face and shaven chin of a comedian. A pair of remarkably light eyes under rather heavy lids alone gave a significance to him, at all events when seen for the first time in a mood of good will. Jim Frobisher was afterwards able to recognize that Hanaud combined with his respect for law and his horror of the meannesses of crime just that kindliness and keen human sympathy which is so often shown by detectives in the witness-box at our own Assizes. Mr. Frobisher, on the other hand, was a trifle too solemn and, as Hanaud puts it, too proper to appreciate the great detective's sense of humour. A sense of humour by universal agreement is necessary in any man of balanced judgment. In the case of Hanaud I am bound to admit that it does from time to time get out of hand. It is often a little too elephantine, and as often, I am afraid, a little too impish, and though I hate to say it of an intimate friend, sometimes quite, quite puerile.

    In an early chapter of the second affair in which he appears, described in The House of the Arrow, Hanaud plays a little foolish trick upon this too sedate young English lawyer, who, as a result, hardly knows whether he was standing upon his head or his heels. "A minute ago," it is said, "Hanaud had been the grave agent of justice; without a hint he had leaped to buffoonery, and with a huge enjoyment he had become half urchin, half clown. Jim Frobisher could almost hear the bells of his cap still tinkling. He simply stared, and Hanaud with a rueful smile resumed his seat.

    " If we work together at Dijon, Monsieur Frobisher, I shall not enjoy myself as I did with my dear little friend, Mr. Ricardo, at Aix. Had I made this little pantomime for Mr. Ricardo he would have sat with the eyes popping out of his head. But you, Monsieur Frobisher, you look at me all cold and stony, and you say to yourself, "This Hanaud, he is a comic." ' "

    Still he makes a plea of justification in his fourth adventure called They Wouldn't be Chessmen. Hanaud is lunching with Mr. Ricardo in a restaurant at Havre, and "All the laughter and the fun died out of Hanaud's face; it became disconsolate and sad, the face of a lonely man. "

    'I laugh, yes,' he says, 'I make my foolish little jokes, yes, I do waggishnesses like dropping a feather I picked out of the gutter on to your white tablecloth. I must laugh. For my soul's sake, I who live amongst crimes and squalor must laugh when I find friends to laugh with,' his eyelids half closed over his eyes, 'even though there is very little to laugh at.' "

    My aim, indeed, was to give my detective no special equipment beyond that which any astute policeman might naturally acquire, and to lay all the details of the particular problem with which he had to deal before the reader at the same time as they were laid before him; partly from the intention that the riddle with all its clues should be so fairly presented that the public which cares for riddles might solve it at the same tune as Hanaud solved it, and partly in the hope that the story itself might by those means develop with a greater interest.

    I'll give two instances of the sort of acute judgment which is Hanaud's stock-in-trade. Many years ago I was present at a curious trial at the Old Bailey. An elderly spinster who kept a small newspaper shop in the Commercial Road happened to be the proud possessor of a good deal of cheap jewellery. The door of her shop was divided horizontally waist- high, so that the top part could be swung open whilst the lower part remained bolted. In the evening after her shop was closed the old lady used to deck herself out in her jewellery, lean out over the lower half of the door as if from a hutch, and exchange the time of day with her neighbours. One morning she was found murdered. There was a small strong cupboard for her jewellery near to her bed. The cupboard was broken and empty and the whole room had been ransacked. Two men were arrested. They were undoubtedly guilty of the crime, and were condemned and executed. But the odd feature of the crime was that though this extra strong cupboard was empty, neither of the two men had in his possession any of this cheap jewellery, neither of them had pawned a single piece of it, neither of them had any money at all, and yet the jewellery had disappeared. The police never discovered it. But months afterwards, when the shop was re-let and the house in process of being repaired, a cache under the floor of the bedroom was found in which all this cheap jewellery still lay safe. So as to mislead any thieves who might force an entrance, the old woman had fixed up her strong cupboard as a blind. She locked away her ornaments in it every night, and when everyone was asleep transferred them to the cache. I used this incident in At the Villa Rose. The safe is empty, the valuable necklace and bracelets of Madame Dauvray have vanished. But Hanaud refuses to accept the presumption that the thieves have got away with their loot because the room is wrecked. It looks as if a tornado had swept through it. Why should so much time be wasted in ransacking the room if Camille Dauvray's jewels were gleaming and blazing in her safe for the robbers to see once they had forced the door? And he discovers the cache, which in actual fact here in England had eluded the searches of the police.

    I might quote another instance, this time from The House of the Arrow. It isn't a meticulous knowledge of scientific processes which enables Hanaud to get his results, but merely a sublimated common sense "An important piece of evidence is furnished by a clock. A girl, Ann Upcott, running into a room with which she is unfamiliar, in the dark, switches the light on hurriedly and as hurriedly switches it off again. It is at that moment that the crime is committed, and during that moment she has seen the white face of a clock and the hands pointing to the hour of half-past ten. She is a little puzzled, for when later on she sees the clock in the same place on a marquetry cabinet in front of a mirror it seems to her to stand lower than it did during the fragment of time between switching on a light and switching it off again. Actually this evidence acquits the guilty person absolutely, for that person did undoubtedly not return from a ball until ten minutes past one. Soon after Hanaud, standing in the hall and thinking over this problem, sees the face of a barometer in a mirror; the hand points in that direction which he knows from habit to represent stormy weather. On the other hand the weather is actually fair and set fair, and it is only when turning from the mirror towards the barometer to see what is wrong with the instrument that he realizes that the hand which in the mirror seems to be on the left hand of the barometer's face is actually on the right hand. Then, examining the room in which the clock had been seen, he notices that on the wooden mantelpiece opposite to the mirror there are certain small marks which look like those which would be left by the claws of the clock. He tests the matter with his watch. He holds the watch face to face with the mirror. He turns the hands until in the mirror they point apparently to half-past ten. The real time which they register is half-past one. Therefore the crime was committed at half-past one, not half-past ten, and the guilty person who was far away at that hour was in the house twenty minutes before the crime was committed. Hanaud's point of view is expressed to James Frobisher.

    "We are the servants of chance, the very best of us. Our skill is to seize quickly the hem of her skirt when it flashes for a second before our eyes. You see, it is the law of nature to save itself from effort. We live with clocks and watches, they are as customary as our daily bread, and with the instinct to save ourselves effort we take our time from the position of the hands, we take the actual figures of the hours for granted. Mademoiselle comes out of the dark, and with one swift flash of light she sees the hands upon the clock's face—half-past ten. Yes, but the time was half-past one and Betty Harlowe had been twenty minutes home from Monsieur de Pouillac's ball. Ascribe to me no gifts out of the ordinary run. I am trained, that is all. I told you once, and I tell you again very humbly, that we are the servants of chance. Chance is a good mistress if her servants do not go to sleep, and that afternoon she treated me well."

    Indeed, Hanaud makes no claims beyond those of a trained man who is capable when he has seized the skirts of chance of hanging tightly on to them.

    Along with my detective Hanaud walks his friend Mr. Ricardo, once of Mincing Lane, now a haunter of studios; one whom business men, or at all events those business men who had never done business with him, treated with the disrespect due to a dilettante, and artists tolerated as anxious to become a connoisseur. Mr. Ricardo—flattered by his friendship with a famous detective, yet shocked by his lapses from good taste, ready to befriend the victims of a crime, yet always in doubt which is the victim and which the criminal; one with a certain liking for the bizarre, and at the same time an extreme shrinking from the scenes in which his unfortunate inclination involves him—is Hanaud's complement, the pebble to his steel. The two men have grown up together throughout now four volumes, and with them has grown a supreme confidence on the part of Hanaud that he is a master of the English idiom and an untiring desire on Mr. Ricardo's part to disabuse him of that error. Thus—I quote again from They Wouldn't be Chessmen—the two men are sitting at luncheon in a restaurant at Havre, and Hanaud has an idea. He expresses it calmly and simply: " 'I have a munch.' "

    A smile spread over Ricardo's face. " 'No, no, my friend, you have had a munch.' " 'You will excuse me,' said Hanaud patiently. 'I have had a lunch.' " 'You have had a munch with your lunch,' Mr. Ricardo explained. 'Now you have a hunch,' "

    Hanaud laughed and patted his friend on the shoulder. Mr. Ricardo no more liked pats on the shoulder than he liked digs in the ribs. "

    'Did I not say that you were a comic!' Hanaud exclaimed agreeably. (A hunch! I know him. He is a nonconformity of the back/ "

    'He is also the authorized version of a guess which is generally wrong,' said Mr. Ricardo tartly." Hanaud could make his mistakes even in more serious matters, like any other poor human. He was at fault when he was unaware that a car running from Aix les Bains to Geneva would be stopped by the Customs Authorities at the Pont de la Caille; when he allowed the cab carrying Marthe Gobin to go unattended up the hill from the railway-station to the Majestic Hotel; and when, in The Prisoner in the Opal., he omitted to arrange that the magistrate's car on the road between the Medoc and Bordeaux should be searched like that of any private citizen.

    Indeed, Celia Harland of The Villa Rose provided the description of which Hanaud is proudest when she said after her rescue, " 'If I knew you better I should tell you what, of course, I do not tell you, that I feel as if I had a big Newfoundland dog with me.' " 'Mademoiselle Celie,' said Hanaud and his voice told her that he was moved, 'that is a very pretty thing which you have said to me.' " And perhaps we can leave Hanaud at that.


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Text © 1935 AEW Mason-Allen & Unwin    Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins

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