Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Chevalier's Thermometer Sets the Scene

"The cold on the 8th of February, 186-, was more intense than the Parisians had experienced during the whole of the severe winter which had preceded it, for at twelve o'clock that on that day Chevalier's thermometer, so well known by the denizens of Paris, registered three degrees below zero. The sky was overcast and full of threatening signs of snow, while the moisture on the pavement and roads had frozen hard, rendering traffic of all kinds exceedingly hazardous. The whole great city wore an air of dreariness and desolation, for even when a thin crust of ice covers the waters of the Seine, the mind involuntarily turns to those who have neither food, shelter, not fuel." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1)

Caught in the Net opens like a sensation novel. The time and place are precise, modern and familiar - we are in Paris in the 1860s. Whatever happens after this happens close to home. The setting is made even more ordinary and precise by the reference to 'Chevalier's thermometer, so well known ...'

The Chevaliers were a famous family of instrument makers and opticians. Their shop was first established in 1760 at 31 Quai de l'Horloge by Louis-Vincent Chevalier (1744-1804). Later they also had a shop at 158 Palais-Royal. Their name stood for elegance and quality. The Maison Chevalier was particularly famous for microscopes, camera obscura-devices, but also sold opera glasses, barometers and other instruments. The Chevaliers were involved in the early years of photography. Louis Daguerre (1789-1851) knew the Chevaliers; he was introduced to his long-time collaborator Joseph Niepce by  Jacques Louis Vincent Chevalier (1770-1841). There is a curious thermometer connection here too: in 1835 mercury vapours from a broken thermometer led Daguerre to discover a method of reducing the exposure time of his pictures from eight hours to half an hour. (Source: http://www.historiccamera.com). For a good short summary on the Chevaliers, although in German, see http://www.kambeck.com).

Chevalier's thermometer is mentioned in Victo Hugo's Les Miserables (1862; Vol III, Chapter 20): "when you want to know whether it is cold, you look in the papers to see what the engineer Chevalier's thermometer says about it. We, it is we who are thermometers. We don't need to go out and look on the quay at the corner of the Tour de l'Horologe, to find out the number of degrees of cold; we feel our blood congealing in our veins, and the ice forming round our hearts, ..."

Parisians would have been familiar with the Chevalier's shop windows. A large thermometer next to the shop entrance may have been enough of a landmark to be featured in images of Paris:


 (by Honoré Victorin Daumier.
"The thermometer of the engineer Chevalier was right... at 10 degrees the large rivers as well as the noses have cought a cold... just imagine that it might take three weeks for my nose to thaw!...," plate 5 from Paris L'hiver, 1845. Source: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/7786)

The Chevalier thermometer clearly measured the official temperature of Paris, its numbers were even reported in the US: in 1820, Philadeplphia's The Rural Magazine, and Literary Evening Fire-side (Vol 1. No 4, 1820, p153) reported in its  "Miscellany": "At Paris on the 11th, the thermometer of the engineer Chevalier, stood at 11 below 0. The Seine was frozen over." (Source: books.google.co.uk/books?id=24A4AQAAMAAJ)

In addition to the place and date, thanks to Chevalier's thermometer, we are given the air temperature at a specific point in time. After this almost scientifically defined setting, the opening paragraph turns romantic and displays other familiar aspects of sensation fiction. Bad weather is coming: "the sky was ... full of threatening signs" and movement was "exceedingly hazardous." Forces of nature are foreshadowing dramatic events. Next, the familiar urban environment takes on an ominous character: "The whole great city wore an air of dreariness and desolation." If you wanted to take this textual analysis to extreme, you might argue that by referring to the thin crust of ice that covers the Seine, the narrative warns that appearances are deceptive and beneath smooth surfaces hide ugly, murky depths. This of course, is a fundamental principle of sensation fiction: there will be dark secrets. Finally, as "the mind involuntarily turns to those who have neither food, shelter, not fuel," it is precisely these kinds of unfortunates that we expect to meet next; our minds turn in the direction of the narrator's words.

The opening paragraph of Caught in the Net is excellent in the way it establishes the time and place (close to the reader's own world), makes it dramatic (cold, desolate) and hints at things to come (poverty, suffering, struggle). This is a text-book opening for a sensation novel: it establishes a world that is contemporary and familiar to the readers, and at the same time threatening. It is an ordinary urban setting, but the exceptionally cold weather makes it alien and hostile.

We move to a cheap lodging house Hotel de Perou, a miserable, run-down place of "extreme shabbiness." Its location is very precise, we should be able to find it without any trouble: it "stands nor twenty steps from the Place de Petit Point" (Caught in a Net, Chapter 1). We first meet Rose alone in her lodgings there. She appears to be a traditional romantic heroine (but there are warning signs in her description):

"Rose was an exquisitely beautiful girl about eighteen years of age. She was very fair; her long lashes partially concealed a pair of steely blue eyes, and to certain extent relieved their hard expression. Her ripe, red lips, which seemed formed for love and kisses, permitted a glimpse of a row of pearly teeth. Her bright waving hair grew low down upon her forehead, and such of it had escaped from the bondage of a cheap comb, with which it was fastened, hung in wild luxuriance over her exquisitely shaped neck and shoulders." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1).

A while later, Paul Violaine enters the room, he looks a little like he could be the hero of the tale:

"He was a young man of twenty-three, of slender figure, but admirably proportioned. ... A slight silky moustache concealed his upper lip, and gave his features that air of manliness in which they would have otherwise been deficient. His curly chestnut hair fell gracefully over his brow upon which an expression of pride was visible, and enhanced the peculiar, restless glance of his large, dark eyes." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1)

Paul and Rose are young and beautiful, and poor and in love. Paul arrives in the lodgings without bringing either money or food, and Rose is not happy about this. In the course of their argument it becomes apparent that they are neither brother and sister nor a married couple. Paul laments that matters used to be better between them: "... it was in those days that you loved me." And Rose is only eighteen now! This is a young couple leading a fast life.

The argument is interrupted by "an old man standing upon the threshold. ... He had high, thick brows, and a red nose; a long, thick grisly beard covered the rest of his countenance. He wore a pair of spectacles with coloured glasses, which to a great extent, concealed the expression of his face. His whole attire indicated extreme poverty." (Ibid.)

Despite his appearance, the man, who introduces himself as "Daddy Taintaine" offers Paul a loan of five hundred francs and after a little persuasion Paul accepts; "the two young people who, through their evil instincts led them to be greedy and covetous, were yet unskilled in the world's ways." (Ibid.) Tantaine also offers introduce to his friend Mascarin: "if he takes a fancy to you, - decides to push you, your future is assured, and you will have no doubts as to getting on." (Ibid.)

The young couple are an engaging mix of innocence and greed. Daddy Tantaine is a suitably dubious character to tempt them. The opening set-up of Gaboriau's novel is promising: Paul and Rose, morally flawed and pressured by poverty, are caught in a net.

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,” (http://sherlockholmesexhibition.com/path-to-baker-street/) 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, http://www.worlds-best-detective-crime-and-murder-mystery-books.com/gaboriauinfluenceondoyle01-article.html.)

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.

(from http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eug%C3%A8ne-Fran%C3%A7ois_Vidocq)
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 (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n06/graham-robb/walking-through-walls). (A full text version of Vidocq's memoirs is available at https://archive.org/details/memoirsvidocqpr00cruigoog).

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 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%C3%89mile_Gaboriau.jpg)

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." (http://www.britannica.com)
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 (http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Lecoq.htm, 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, http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/gaboria.htm, 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.