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
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 glancingand 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 serviceunder a cloud, as alwayshe 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 contemporariesfoes and allies alikehe 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 usand 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.
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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