Friday, 9 May 2014

Masters of Plotting

The opening chapters of The Mystery of Champdoce tell the intertwined story of Mascarin’s main victims, It is an excellent melodrama in its own right. The story introduces another villainous character Daumon the Counsellor (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 2) and comes to a truly magnificent conclusion in chapters 16 and 17, entitled “Husband and Lover” and “Blade to Blade” which reveal how George de Croisenois vanished. It is no surprise that the audience, the gang of villains who listen to Paul reading Mascarin’s manuscript aloud for six hours, are impressed: “Catenac was the first who spoke… “

"I always said that our old friend Mascarin would make his mark in literature. As soon as his pen touches the paper the business man vanishes; we have no longer a collection of dry facts and proofs, but the stirring pages of a sensational novel." (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 19)

Later at the same meeting of villains, Mascarin describes the trail he has laid down for Duke de Champdoce in order to entrap him. He orders Catenac to write it down:

"Sit down at my desk," continued Mascarin, "and take careful notes of what I now say. Success is, as I have told you, inevitable, but I must be ably backed. All now depends upon your exactitude in obeying my orders; one false step may ruin us all. (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 20).

 Mascarin’s monologue after this reads like a plot of a detective story (Ibid.). He tells Catenac where to go and what to say, he describes the people Catenac will meet with the Duke, gives their back-stories and what they will say in turn. Mascarin lists carefully every clue and step, all intricately created by him, along the way which will lead Duke de Champdoce to discover his long lost son and heir.

Absolutely dumb with surprise, the audience listened to these strange assertions, which dovetailed so exactly into each other, and seemed to have been the work of years of research.” (Ibid.)

Hortebise applauds Mascarin for his artistry: “"Bravo!" he exclaimed, clapping his hands together."Bravo, my dear Mascarin, you have excelled yourself to-day!"” (Ibid.)

The parallels between the narrative powers of Mascarin and his creator Gaboriau are obvious and quite possibly intended. Mascarin’s plot is as intricate as it is vast. Gaboriau’s plot is equally impressive. The attention to detail and the placement of clues and their explanations is expertly handled in both volumes of The Slaves of Paris. There are no loose ends. Every little sin, every scrap of paper, every overheard snippet of conversation is significant and contributes to the monstrous whole. Every character, even if at first apparently superfluous or mere comic relief, is caught in the net of the plot and has a role to play. The Slaves of Paris is a house of cards: remove any single even insignificant piece, and the whole will collapse. Like Mascarin says: “one false step may ruin us all. (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 20).

The timing of the revelations is particularly measured. In Chapter 18, we learn that Duke de Champdoce has a lost son. The child was given away at birth to a foundling hospital (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 19). The only clues are that he was apprenticed to a tanner at the age of twelve, and he has a scar on his arm from a bad burn. The reader immediately knows who the Duke’s real son is. This is soon confirmed when Paul exclaims: “the real man exists; I know him.” (Ibid.) When a clue is given to the reader about Paul’s parentage (we learn that Montlouis’s son was called Paul in Mascarin’s narrative in Chapter 12), the obvious conclusion is confirmed in a rather off-hand manner: “Paul had a patron; but he, as I have found out, was the Count de Mussidan, the murderer of Montlouis, who, as you may have guessed, was Paul's father.” (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 20). Explanations and confirmation of the reader’s guesses and conclusions come at the right moment – not too early (the reader gets the pleasure of feeling smart) and not too late (the reader’s intelligence is not insulted). The narrative assumes an intelligent and attentive reader.

Gaboriau plays with the reader’s expectations. When Toto Chupin sabotages the scaffolding in order to kill André, we have a classic Hitchock-moment: we know that a deadly trap has been laid for our hero (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 28). For several chapters (and days) André continues to make progress in his investigation into the blackmail case. We expect (and hope?) that this amateur detective hero will be saved and we almost forget about the trap  – until André has reason to climb up the scaffolding and he falls (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 33). Our attention has been focused on André, because he has been the character to carry forward the attempts to catch Mascarin. Now he is suddenly removed from the scene severely injured.

The chapters of the novel are carefully balanced to give us two opposing perspectives into the events and characters involved. In The Mystery of Champdoce, the eighteen chapters of Mascarin’s manuscript provide the story that has been hovering in the background through the whole of Caught in the Net. It brings the story up to date and fills in all the gaps. It is followed by two chapters from Mascarin’s perspective. In chapter 21, the focus moves to André, and for the next four chapters we see how he takes on the role of a detective: “detective's business was quite new to him, which is no such easy matter, although everyone thinks that he can become one.” (The Mystery of Champdoce, Chapter 25). In the following four chapters we are again with Mascarin, and then return to André for another four chapters, until he plummets to the ground from the scaffolding. The last two chapters (Chapter 34 and 35) are a climactic denouement of the intricate plots (Mascarin’s and Gaboriau’s).

There are clear methods in The Slaves of Paris of manipulating the reader’s expectations: first there are the clues and hints and their timely explanations to keep the reader hooked and entertained. Secondly, there are the primed traps, which are triggered in unexpected ways. Thirdly, there is the varying perspective where the same events are interpreted from different viewpoints. All this works as a smoke-screen to shield our eyes from the real surprise – Mascarin’s own secret – something so obvious you really should have spotted it almost from the beginning.

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