commissaire inspector dottore
a bibliography of detective-inspector novels
the lecoq seriesL'Affaire Lerouge. Paris: E. Dentu, 1866.
∴ L' Affaire Lerouge oder Gefahren des Irrthums. Wien: Albert Last, 1867.
∴ La Causa Lerouge. Habana: Diario de la Marina, 1869.
∴ Kriminelsagen Lerouge. København, 1870.
∴ The Widow Lerouge. Translated by Frederick Williams and George A.O. Ernst. Boston: Osgood, 1873.
∴ The Lerouge Case. London: Vizetelly, 1881.
∴ El proceso Lerouge. Translated by Joaquina Balmaseda. Madrid: El Cosmos, 1887.
∴ Die Witwe Lerouge. Translated by Ilanga von Mettenheim. Nürnberg: Nest, 1949.
∴ El caso Lerouge. Translated by Brunilda Gordon. México: Novaro, 1958.
∴ Die Affäre Lerouge. Translated by E. Stark. Stuttgart: Govens, 1970.
∴ Der Fall Lerouge. Translated by Karlheinz Berger. Berlin: Das Neue Berlin, 1973.
Le crime d'Orcival. Paris: E. Dentu, 1867.
∴ Greve og Grevinde de Trémorel. Aalborg, 1869.
∴ Dramaet i Orcival. København: Madsen, 1882.
∴ The Mystery of Orcival. New York: Lowell, 1883.
∴ Zbrodnia w Orcival. Translated by Halina Poplawska. Warszawa: Iskry, 1959.
∴ Il dramma di Orcival. Milano: Mondadori, 1963.
∴ Das Verbrechen von Orcival. Translated by Bernhard Thieme. Berlin: Das Neue Berlin, 1990.
∴ El crimen de Orcival. Translated by Eva María González Pardo. Morcín, Asturias: d'Epoca, 2015.
Le dossier no. 113. Paris: E. Dentu, 1867.
∴ File No. 113. New York: Burt, 1875.
∴ Dossier No. 113. London: Vizetelly, 1883.
∴ The Blackmailers. Translated by Ernest Tristan. London: Greening, 1907.
∴ El expediente 113. Translated by José Bailo. Madrid: Anaya, 1985.
Monsieur Lecoq. Paris: E. Dentu, 1869.
∴ Herr Lecoq. Berlin, 1869. Reprinted Philadelphia 1800s, Berlin 1903, Stuttgart 1909, etc.
∴ Il signor Lecoq. Milano: E. Treves, 1869.
∴ Por honor del nombre. Madrid: El Cosmos, 1890.
∴ Monsieur Lecoq. Illustrated by Bayard Jones. New York: Scribner, 1900.
∴ Monsieur Lecoq. Stockholm: Bonnier, 1903.
∴ Pan Lecoq. Lwów: Ksiegarnia Gubrynowicza i Syna, 1910.
∴ Agent policyjny. Warszawa: Tygodnik Powiesciowy, 1924.
∴ El señor Lecoq. Translated by M.G. Blanco de Sanchez Ventura. México: Novaro, 1958.
∴ Il signor Lecoq. Translated by Francesca Menotti. Roma: Casini, 1966.
∴ Herr Lecoq. Old translation revised by Alice Berger. Berlin: Verlag Das Neue Berlin, 1983.
Screams ring out from a shady dive in a rough area of Paris. When a squad of police led by the bluff "General" Gévrol arrives, a single assassin surveys a scene of carnage: two dead and one dying. He claims self-defense, and the dying man corroborates the claim. But who is "Mai," the killer? A young officer named Lecoq finds evidence of an accomplice and two women having fled the scene, and suspects that Mai is not the traveling player he claims to be, but a member of the highest rank of French society.
When Mai refuses to acknowledge his identity, Lecoq devises a scheme to release him; but the killer escapes without a trace into the city mansion of the Duc de Sairmeuse. When Lecoq consults his mentor Tabaret, the older detective unveils a story with its roots in the Bourbon Restoration of 1815, when the families of Sairmeuse, Escorval, Courtomieu, and Lacheneur struggled for mastery of a provincial town and its estates. The poisonous aftereffects of their conflict have been felt down the decades and have come to a head in the murderous clash at the Paris tavern. Fully 3/5 of the novel is told in flashback to the events during the Restoration.
Monsieur Lecoq (1869) is not the earliest of Émile Gaboriau's policiers, not the first to feature the brilliant, highly-strung title detective. But it is the longest of his books, and the most archetypal, and serves as a profound influence on all subsequent detective-inspector fiction – though as I will continually stress, it's an influence often exerted at a distance and at several indirect removes.
M. Lecoq actually appears for the first time in the first of Gaboriau's detective novels, L'affaire Lerouge (1866). But he no sooner starts work on the Lerouge case than he withdraws in favor of his mentor, the frenetic but hyper-logical père Tabaret. Evidently Gaboriau thought first of patterning Lecoq on the historical Eugène Vidocq, the criminal-turned-cop whose memoirs became the model for so many subsequent books about police detectives. In his brief appearance in L'affaire Lerouge, Lecoq seems to be a somewhat junior figure, but in Le crime d'Orcival (1867) and Le dossier no. 113 (1868), he comes into his own as a master of detection and disguise, relentless in his pursuit of fiendish criminals and harassed by a gaggle of sworn enemies.
In Monsieur Lecoq, Gaboriau invents a device that would be used by nearly every creator of a successful detective series: he winds back the clock and shows us his hero at the start of his police career. The young Lecoq had been an astronomer's apprentice. Bored by the repetitive calculations of his job, he turned his intellect towards planning the perfect crime:
Ce garçon, admirablement honnête, passait sa vie à perpétrer, par la pensée, les plus abominables méfaits. (19)His mentor tells him
[This admirably honest young man spend his life committing – in his mind – the most horrible misdeeds.]
Quand on a vos dispositions et, qu'on est pauvre, on devient un voleur fameux ou un illustre policier. Choisissez. (19)Luckily for the property-owners of Paris and 150 years of polar-readers, Lecoq makes up his mind to become a famous cop.
[When someone is of your way of thinking, and needs money, he becomes either a famous thief or a famous cop. Make up your mind.]
He's little more than a beat-walker when the novel begins. Under the command of the "General" Gévrol, Lecoq takes part in a routine nighttime patrol of the terrains vagues, the dangerous, disreputable outskirts of Paris. As Andrea Goulet describes them, the terrains vagues are
a space where unlit fog provides cover for less civilized acts. Neither urban nor rural, the terrain vague metaphorically transforms even the great city Paris into a sinister wasteland. (190)Here in the wasteland, Lecoq comes into his own. The patrol is alarmed by shrieks of terror emanating from a dive bar. They break down the door to find a killer barricaded behind a table, his three victims expiring a few meters away. Self-defense – but how did the scene come about? Is it as simple as three cutthroats descending on an unsuspecting mark?
Not as simple as that, by 700 pages of narrative worth. The blunt Gévrol is inclined to see the slaughter as a falling-out among thieves and let the courts sort it out. Lecoq realizes that the killer is hiding something. As his mentor Tabaret will later tell him, the first axiom of police work is "se défier de la vraisemblance" (277): distrust plausible appearances.
In custody, the killer claims to be "Mai," an orphaned circus performer. He claims to have just arrived in Paris and wandered into that bar. He did not know the three men who attacked him. He had to kill them in self-defense.
We will learn, those 700 pages later, that Mai is telling the truth about the crime, but concealing his identity (not unlike the duke who masquerades as "Rodolphe" in Eugène Sue's Mystères de Paris). Lecoq distrusts "Mai" from the start. He's too refined, too clean-looking, too culturally literate. As so often in mystery fiction, the hero Lecoq (himself a master of disguise) is blinded by the disguises of his adversary. In the climactic scene of the first volume, Lecoq chases the escaped Mai into the garden of the Sairmeuse mansion. He gets permission to search the place from the duke of Sairmeuse himself, and in the course of the search he meets the duke – who is, of course, Mai. He doesn't recognize him. Of course, context matters when you try to place a face, but Lecoq has been pretty intent on placing this one. His blindness to the killer's identity is more of a literary device than a realistic plot detail. Is it that the trappings of aristocracy will always blind even the astutest observer to wrongdoing – or simply that, as in Poe's "Purloined Letter," the police rarely see what's right in front of them?
In the main action of the novel, Lecoq conducts an investigation of the triple killing, parallel to the official police inquiry led by Gévrol. In this effort, Lecoq directs the work of an older, bibulous cop nicknamed "père Absinthe." In turn, Lecoq reports to the juge d'instruction who has responsibility for the entire case, a thoughtful, energetic man named Segmuller. In French practice at the time – or at least, in French crime fiction of the time – ultimate authority for both investigation and prosecution lay in the hands of the juge d'instruction, which might be roughly and not very evocatively translated as "magistrate." Somewhat like prosecuting attorneys and DAs in later crime fiction, the juge has both legal and police powers and duties. Segmuller has taken the triple-murder case over from another magistrate called Escorval, who has inopportunely broken a leg, or at least pretended to break a leg. Segmuller's patronage helps Lecoq develop theories that seem hairbrained to the rest of the force. But he can't extend those theories indefinitely, and both he and his patron lose heart when their leads go nowhere.
Ultimately, those leads peter out in the Sairmeuse mansion, and Lecoq has to seek help from père Tabaret. Tabaret engages in some primeval Googling. His reference books identify several prominent people who were locked in mortal combat back in 1815-16, after the final exile of Napoleon I to St. Helena. Then, abruptly, we are transported back to 1815, and the narrative winds its way forward again to the present day over the course of another 400 pages.
Gaboriau has been much-criticized by readers over the last century-and-a-half for his near-endless backstories. Pre-eminent Gaboriau critic Roger Bonniot observes
une pratique particulièrement condamnée quand elle s'introduit dans les roman judiciaires. C'est l'abus de ce que les cinéastes appelent le flash-back Dans le plupart de ses roman judiciaires on revient de vingt ou trente ans en arrière (221)I'm not sure how far back the action goes in Monsieur Lecoq. Or rather, I'm sure how far back it goes in absolute terms – back to 1815 – but not how far back 1815 is relative to the "main" action (which comprises only 40% of the book, its first volume plus a brief coda to the second).
[a severely condemned device, when used in crime novels. This is the overuse of what movie people call "flashbacks." In most of his crime novels the action goes back twenty or thirty years ]
Monsieur Lecoq presents some chronological problems for the Lecoq series as a whole. The action of L'affaire Lerouge takes place in 1862. Lecoq is presented there as a young man, and his mentor Tabaret as old but hardly decrepit. Meanwhile in 1815 Martial de Sairmeuse ("Mai") is a young man, and by the time of Monsieur Lecoq he's a generation older, but hardly decrepit either, given his ability to take down assassins and vanish over garden walls. The problem is that Lecoq is young when he tangles with the duke, and apparently still young when the duke must have reached his late 60s – giving Lecoq only a few years to establish the legendary reputation he achieves in the "late" novels Le crime d'Orcival and Le dossier no. 113. It's probably not worth worrying about. Most heroes of detective series are of permanently indeterminate age. Gaboriau's fussiness about exact dates is the only thing that leaves the series open to chronological quandaries.
In any event, the long second volume of Monsieur Lecoq traces the labyrinthine conflict among several families: the royalist Sairmeuses, who have just returned from exile and want their considerable estates back, the Courtomieus, who have played both ends against the middle and now want an alliance with the restored monarchy and its supporters, the Lacheneurs, who have risen from subaltern status to buy the Sairmeuse estate, and the Escorvals, Bonapartist nobility whose heir Maurice is in love with Marie-Anne Lacheneur, the paysanne turned heiress. And wouldn't you know it, that's the same Maurice Escorval who developed a broken leg as soon as he recognized his worst enemy, Martial de Sairmeuse, in the guise of the mountebank "Mai."
How to summarize this massive narrative? (And does it matter, while we're on tenterhooks waiting to see how the investigation will turn out, to get all this detail in the backstory – the real objection of Bonniot and other critics, naturall.) Basically, Martial, the Sairmeuse heir, also falls in love with Marie-Anne, though he's engaged to Blanche de Courtomieu. Marie-Anne's father yields his titles to the Sairmeuses, but plots revenge, and raises a rebel army. The rebellion fails. Lacheneur is executed, leaving his son plotting an even longer and more desperate revenge. Blanche marries Martial, who leaves her, still pining for Marie-Anne. So she poisons Marie-Anne. Decades later, the younger Lacheneur hires three assassins to try to kill Martial, but as we've seen, he kills them first.
I left out a bit I left out nearly everything, honestly. Several other minor characters from the past play a role in the present; in Gaboriau's Paris like Faulkner's Mississippi, the past isn't even past. But at least you've got the barest sketch of a thumbnail explanation for the events in the novel's "present day."
The juxtaposition of the two volumes of Monsieur Lecoq raises structural problems, of the kind that slow-moving narratives leave readers time to raise. How does Lecoq learn the backstory? The best assumption is that Tabaret, master of the ex ungue leonem technique of reconstruction from bare vestiges, infers the whole story from a few lines in his reference books, and is the implied narrator of Volume II. There's nothing in the text to suggest this, but I like the idea. Certainly there is not much that Lecoq can do even after he learns the truth. Nobody doubts that Mai has killed three men, or even that his claim of self-defense (backed by one of the dying hit-men) will stand in court. The problem all along has been one of identity, not guilt or innocence. The two other murders in the novel (Blanche's poisoning Marie-Anne, and the ugly killing of Chupin, who has betrayed Lacheneur) are long past, the poisoning unprovable at this point.
So the brief coda of the book consists of Lecoq tricking Sairmeuse into admitting his identity. There isn't even much point to this subterfuge, from the perspective of law or justice. Martial Sairmeuse is both guilty and innocent; his identity, not his action or his responsibility for it, becomes the focus of Lecoq's obsession. The duke is mortified at first by being found out, but ultimately seems rather relieved by no longer having the weight of these deceptions on his conscience. Blanche dies by her own hand; the duke never liked her anyway. All ends with justice rather patchily served, but the investigative tenacity of Lecoq rewarded with "the truth will out."
This sounds like a corny, terrible book, but it is legitimately spell-binding. You just have to overcome your objections to its unusual pace and structure, outliers even in Gaboriau's flashback-heavy œuvre. It's a novel that immediately spins off its own prequel before not quite ending. The 1815-16 stuff is protracted but full of lugubrious energy. Meanwhile, the first volume is groundbreaking in its portrayal of an institutional system devoted to the detection of crime.
But Monsieur Lecoq isn't what the blurb on the back of the 2003 "Labyrinthes" edition claims: "le grand chef-d'œuvre de son auteur, peintre authentique de la société du Second Empire" [the great masterpiece by its author, a realistic portrayer of the Second Empire]. Well, it's possibly Gaboriau's great masterpiece, though I prefer L'affaire Lerouge. But it's not Victor Hugo or Émile Zola. There's little about the Second Empire in it, and what there is about French history and manners of the immediate post-Napoleonic years is mostly romanticized and sensational – in other words, Gaboriau ain't Balzac or Stendhal, either. But as romantic, sensational stories go, Monsieur Lecoq has terrific drive – and when you get down to it, all the high-canon novelists I mention have their sensational moments too.
Bonniot, Roger. Émile Gaboriau ou La naissance du roman policier. Paris: J. Vrin, 1985.
Goulet, Andrea. Legacies of the Rue Morgue: Science, space, and crime fiction in France. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.