Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Criminal Inspiration - Gaboriau's The Slaves of Paris (1868)

Émile Gaboriau (1832-1873) has a well-recognized position in the history of detective fiction even if he is read little today (his novels are becoming available as e-books, but there are no recent printed editions). He provided inspiration for mystery writers on both sides of the Atlantic; Anna Katharine Green mentions him in an interview in 1929 (in Bookman, Vol 70, p168) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found in Gaboriau's detective stories a source for Sherlock Holmes. In 1924, Conan Doyle is quoted as writing in his memoir: “Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots,” ( and in an interview in 1900, Conan Doyle explained how he got the  idea for A Study in Scarlet (1887): "it was about 1886 - I had been reading some detective stories, and it struck me what nonsense they were ..." According to Pierre Nordon, Conan Doyle's notebooks for 1885 and 1886 show that among Conan Doyle's reading "almost the only detective stories were by Gaboriau." (Pierre Nordon. Conan Doyle, 1966, p. 225). In the early pages of A Study in Scarlet, Holmes dismisses Gaboriau's detective Lecoq as "a miserable bungler. ... That book made me positively ill." (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 2). For a more detailed look at traces of Gaboriau in Sherlock Holmes stories, see for example,

In France, even before than in England, the idea of detective police had captured people's imagination. This fascination with the detective as an authority moving across class boundaries and ferreting out the hidden secrets of both respectable and criminal classes, was quickly harnessed commercially. Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857) was  a criminal who became the head of the French detective force Sûreté Nationale and founded what is generally thought to be the first ever private detective agency. In 1828 he published his memoirs in four volumes (they were probably ghost-written). They were a roaring success and gave Vidocq life-long fame. These memoirs and Vidocq's character, it has been suggested, gave Edgar Allan Poe inspiration to create Auguste Dupin, who in turn, together with Vidocq, inspired Émile Gaboriau to come up with M. Lecoq.

Vidocq was a thief, a fraud and a womanizer; he was constantly on the run after breaking out from prison and once dressed as a nun to escape his pursuers. In 1809, after having been caught again, he turned his coat and became an informant for the police. First he worked as a prison spy, but after his release in 1811 he became a plainclothes detective. In 1813  Napoleon Bonaparte created Sûreté Nationale with Vidocq at its head. The early 1800s were a turbulent time in France and Vidocq's career had its ups and downs. He is, however, credited with developing many modern policing techniques (record keeping, ballistics, chemical analysis, crime scene investigation). In 1832 Sûreté Nationale overhauled and Vidocq left. In 1833, he founded his own private detective agency Le bureau des renseignements. Vidocq and his organization were in constant loggerheads with the official police and he was plagued by court cases brought against him. Vidocq died in 1857 at the age of 82. He was a well-known public figure and his influence has been spied in the works of writers like Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac and Alexander Dumas. For a good summary on Vidocq see Graham Robb's review of the 2003 edition of Vidocq's memoirs in the London Review of Books ( (A full text version of Vidocq's memoirs is available at

Gaboriau's books, at the time of publication, were patchily translated into English; a browse of the catalogue of the National Library of Scotland shows that a number were published in English in the 1880s, but there are very few later editions, once those disappeared from print. Gaboriau's novels would have belonged to that army of yellow-backed, French cheap novels read for thrills and titillation. It is reasonable to assume that merely the multitude of mistresses established in luxurious quarters featured in these tales would have created a pleasurable sense of naughtiness for their English readers.

Emile Gaboriau (from

Gaboriau was born in the village of Saujon, Charente-Martime. In 1855 he moved to Paris, where he worked as a journalist and a writer for magazines. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, "Gaboriau’s prolific imagination and acute observation generated 21 novels (originally published in serial form) in 13 years. He made his reputation with the publication in 1866 of L’Affaire Lerouge (The Widow Lerouge) after having published several other books and miscellaneous writings." (
In this novel (also translated as The Lerouge Affair) Gaboriau created police detective M. Lecoq and amateur detective Père Tabaret. Other detective stories, featuring the same serial detectives, followed in quick succession: Le Crime d'Orcival and Le Dossier n° 113 both in 1867 and two-volume adventure of Monsieur Lecoq (L'Enquête and L'Honneur du nom) in 1869. Altogether, Lecoq appears in ten novels in one short story (, this site offers a detailed look at the character).

It is generally appreciated how Gaboriau's detectives are masters of both disguise and sharp, analytical thinking. Commentators tend to emphasize those features of Gaboriau's stories (plot twists and clues) and his characters (minute observations and the deductive method) which lead in a straight line to Sherlock Holmes and the classic detective story (see, for example,, for more on Gaboriau and detective fiction). Less attention has been paid to Gaboriau as a writer of sensation fiction.

In the middle of his well-known detective novels, in 1868, Gaboriau published another two-volume novel Les Esclaves de Paris, translated as The Slaves of Paris. The two volumes were entitled Caught in the Net and The Champdoce Mystery. The Slaves of Paris does not follow the pattern of earlier Lecoq-novels with a detective character investigating a crime or solving a mystery. It is, however, a sensation novel.
The Slaves of Paris is a story of a cunning plot of manipulation and deception created and orchestrated by criminal mastermind Baptiste Mascarin. It is a tale told as much from the point of view of the scheming villain as from that of his innocent victims. It is a thrilling drama of love and money and, perhaps most of all, love of money. M. Lecoq appears in the story, but only in chapter 32 (of 35 chapters) of The Mystery of Champdoce.

The master criminal and his creator are clearly aware of the sensational genre within which they both operate. When Mascarin explains the course of his dastardly plot to his henchmen, he ends by commenting that it "...  would really make a good sensational novel." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 18).

We may agree with the general view of Vidocq's influence on the analytical, methodical detective work carried out by Lecoq (Dupin and Holmes), but I will also suggest that we can see traces of Vidocq's life of crime (frauds, false identities, cunning plots) in the characters of Mascarin and his gang in Gaboriau's The Slaves of Paris. This time, Vidocq is not a source of ratiocination and the scientific method of detection but a source of excitement, menace and sensation.

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