Louis Bayard Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Louis Bayard
Photo: D.A. Peterson

Louis Bayard

An interview with Louis Bayard

The Good Guesser
An essay by Louis Bayard about The Black Tower, an historical mystery set in the early 19th century

Five years ago, I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't know who Eugène François Vidocq was. It took Edgar Allan Poe to bring us together.

In the course of researching The Pale Blue Eye, I reread Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which is widely regarded as the world's first detective story. But is it? Turns out that Poe's great sleuth, Dupin, in the course of describing his methodology, makes a glancing—and slighting— reference to a gentleman named Vidocq, whom he immediately dismisses as "a good guesser" lacking "educated thought" and constantly erring "by the very intensity of his investigations."

Two things struck me right off. First, Dupin considered it important to get a leg up on his predecessor (much as Sherlock Holmes would feel compelled to do with Dupin). And second, this particular predecessor needed no introduction to the general reader.

In fact, by 1841, when Poe's story was published, Vidocq was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, a figure who could be cited by Dickens and Melville without any explanatory glossing. We can attribute Vidocq's fame in large part to his gift for self-promotion. Specifically, he was the author of four bestselling volumes of memoirs. These books were at least partly fictional; two were unauthorized; all were ghostwritten. But taken together they represent perhaps the first sustained detective narrative in any language, and Vidocq himself stands as our first modern detective.

Before Vidocq, solving crime was an administrative matter; after Vidocq, it became a field of endeavor in which a man (or woman) could apply the full dint of his talent and intellect and call on the latest developments in both art and science. So it was that Vidocq was the first policeman to use ballistics evidence, the first to take plaster-of-Paris impressions of footprints, one of the very first to recognize the potential of fingerprints (decades before that potential would be realized). He was a master of disguise and surveillance, he held patents for invisible ink and unalterable bond paper, and when he left public service—under a cloud, as always—he founded the world's first private detective agency, the Bureau des Renseignements, which was the template for Allan Pinkerton's agency a quarter century later.

But to Vidocq's contemporaries—foes and allies alike—he was above all a convict. Initially imprisoned for a slight offense, Vidocq managed to escape from virtually all of France's penal institutions, each escape only adding more years to his next sentence. Eventually, he worked his way back to Paris, where, after being blackmailed by former confederates (one of them his ex-wife), he decided a change was in order. So he volunteered his services as a police spy.

In this capacity, he proved so invaluable to the Prefecture of Police that he was able to ascend the chain of command at a remarkable clip, and in 1812 he cofounded the Brigade de la Sûreté, one of the very first plainclothes police divisions. This was a controversial proposition in its day, especially because Vidocq insisted on staffing it with ex-convicts like himself, reasoning that they were the ones best suited to infiltrating criminal milieus.

And he was right. Thanks to the Sûreté's aggressive and creative policing, Paris's crime rate declined markedly, and Vidocq became a folk hero to the local populace. As comfortable as he was in working-class districts, he could play the other side of the street, too. He was an exotically menacing figure for the high-society hostesses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and his comrades included the likes of Balzac and Dumas.

If some of the outlines of Vidocq's life sound familiar, it's because they were appropriated by another author, Victor Hugo, for his masterwork Les Misérables. Hugo essentially split Vidocq in two, channeling the embattled convict years into Jean Valjean and transforming the fearsome servant of justice into Inspector Javert. I can't think of a better tribute to a man's significance than that he must be halved in order to be sufficiently understood.

Vidocq, I soon learned, was everything a novelist dotes on: robust, contrary, appetitive, and a good man to have in a brawl. If anybody could solve the mystery surrounding the Lost Dauphin, I knew it would be the baker's son from Arras. The life Vidocq contrived for himself was itself a kind of enduring fiction, and more than a hundred and fifty years after his death, he is still winking at us—and still shaping how we think and talk about crime and punishment.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Romanovs
    The Romanovs
    by Simon Sebag Montefiore
    The Romanovs chronicles the reigns of the 20 individuals who were considered members of that dynasty...
  • Book Jacket: Barkskins
    Barkskins
    by Annie Proulx
    Barkskins, by Annie Proulx, is not a book to read quickly. After a month of slow reading, I ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Marriage of Opposites
    by Alice Hoffman
    Alice Hoffman's latest work, The Marriage of Opposites, is a historical fiction novel focusing on ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Secret Language of Stones
    by M. J. Rose

    "A fantastic historical tale of war, love, loss and intrigue."
    – Melanie Benjamin

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Miss Jane
    by Brad Watson

    "Starred Review. Sensitive, beautifully precise prose. Highly recommended." - PW

    Read Member Reviews

Members review books pre-publication. Read their opinions in First Impressions

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
Sweet Caress
by William Boyd

William Boyd's Sweet Caress captures an entire lifetime unforgettably within its pages. It captivates.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Summer Stunner
Summer Giveaway

Win 5 books, each week in July!

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

W M T N, W C F All

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
X

BookBrowse Summer Giveaway

We're giving away
5 books every
week in July!