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legacies of the rue morgue

27 january 2016

In Ross Macdonald's The Chill, private eye Lew Archer speaks of "cases which opened up gradually like fissures in the firm ground of the present." Andrea Goulet's study of French crime fiction, Legacies of the Rue Morgue, studies just such fissures in the history of the crime novel, and in the history of crime-novel subjects and settings.

Goulet posits that Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is the germ of all subsequent French crime fiction. This seems odd at first – Poe wrote in English and never even visited France – but his detective stories have French settings, and detective fiction isn't always known for strict faithfulness to geography. Through some sort of transatlantic telekinesis, Poe exposed a vein for French writers to mine. The last time I read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," it was in Charles Baudelaire's French translation. Like Shakespeare in the proverbial original German, Poe may be even better in French.

Legacies of the Rue Morgue traces Poe's vein from his near-contemporaries to our exact contemporaries. Goulet makes two passes through literary history. The first, "Archaeologies," looks at fictions which explore undergrounds and buried secrets; the second, "Cartographies," looks at those which emphasize the two-dimensional surface of society and map its crime scenes. Both sections study texts from the mid-19th century to the present. An interchapter looks at "Intersections," the subgenre of mysteries that take streetnames or addresses as their title settings.

Goulet's theme is the continuity of a great French crime-fiction tradition more often seen, by scholars as well as general readers, as a set of disparate texts, settings, and modes. The debt of philosophically-informed detective fiction – in the mode of Alain Robbe-Grillet – to corny yarns like Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera is often noted but rarely explored. Goulet not only explores the roots of the ultra-higbrow in the decidedly lowbrow, but in effect erases the distinction, treating potboilers as serious social commentary and postmodern language games as serious entertainment.

Only an extreme mystery buff would be familiar with all the primary texts that Goulet invokes. I had read some of the authors, aside from Poe, that she discusses – Émile Gaboriau, Sebastien Japrisot, Didier Daeninckx, Fred Vargas. I'd heard of Gaston Leroux, and Goulet's discussions led me to start reading his work for the first time. But several of the other writers central to her arguments weren't even names to me. Legacies of the Rue Morgue makes an exciting guide to future reading.

What's more, it's a book that is likely to spark connections to any mystery buff's "virtual library" of Krimis. Goulet's discussions of long-buried connections to Paris's past reminded me of Arnaldur Indriðason's obsession with old burials beneath the sprawl of contemporary Reykjavík. Her treatment of fictions with place-name titles (and crucial settings) reminded me of crime novels as far apart as Alafair Burke's 212 and Cara Black's Aimée Leduc series, which echoes, in English and from America, Léo Malet's 1950s project of writing a murder story for each of Paris's arrondissements. Maurice Dantec's fictions set in imaginary Balkans remind me of China Miéville, Olen Steinhauer, and the great Ismail Kadare.

Legacies of the Rue Morgue spans genres, both literary and academic. Goulet builds new connections among crime-fiction criticism, animal studies, and urban studies. She is especially strong on paleofiction, the politically tendentious genre of stories about primitive humans. Goulet's discussion of early fictions of the prehistoric by obscure writers like Elie Berthet make a substantial contribution to criticism of paleofiction, which has been little-studied except for Nicholas Ruddick's excellent book The Fire in the Stone (2009).

Goulet stresses the tensions in these entertainments, tensions that pit order against chaos, evolution against decay, the fixed against the vague, a word that neatly spans French and English vocabularies. She is fascinated by the map that the title hero draws in Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq (193), a map that specifies the crime scene – right down to a suspect's "now-iconic footprints" (197). Yet the details in M. Lecoq's map are set in the midst of terrains vagues on the then-outskirts of Paris, and Lecoq must observe the footprints in quickly-melting snow and slush. For Goulet as for the authors she studies, the traces of fictional crimes are at once indelible and ephemeral.

Goulet, Andrea. Legacies of the Rue Morgue: Science, space, and crime fiction in France. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.