Saturday, 26 April 2014

Let Nothing Escape You ... (Plot Spoiler Alert)

The case of Marquis de Croisenois is set in motion first: "He will do as we wish, but under certain conditions. Mademoiselle de Mussidan must be his bride. ... the engagement between Mademoiselle Sabine and the Baron de Breuhl-Faverlay will be broken off." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3) Gaboriau keeps all the plates spinning with impressive skill and astuteness as the Croisenois plot unravels in chapters with hints and clues to the Champdoc case. Even if one plot line takes precedence in Caught in the Net, the other plot line is carried along throughout.

To achieve Mascarin's goal, the de Mussidans must be blackmailed to change the plans for their daughter, "Mademoiselle, at her age and with her tastes, is not likely to have her heart seriously engaged" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 5). Mascarin goes to meet the Count du Mussidan, while Dr Hortebise has an audience with the Countess.

Mascarin tells the count that unless he agrees to marry his daughter to De Croisenoois, Mascarin will bring to light a murder. As evidence Mascarin has three pages in the diary of Baron de Clinchain, who was present when the Count shot his secretary Montlouis point-blank. De Clinchain famously writes everything down, and Mascarin shows the Count photographs of the damning pages (Caught in the Net, Chapter 5). The Count goes through all counterarguments: madness, a forged diary, the limit of statute) but Mascarin is more cunning than this. He threatens the Count with a newspaper article followed by a libel case: "they introduce into the matter a fifth party, of course an accomplice, whose name is introduced into the story in the paper. Upon the day of its appearance, this man lodges a complaint against the journal, and insist on proving in a court of justice, that he did not form one of the shooting party." (Ibid.)

This round-about way of threatening the Count with court demonstrates Mascarin's mastery of law. As he says himself: "the Penal Code ... no on has studied them more deeply than I have." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 10) Mascarin is very aware that if he gets caught he faces life imprisonment (Ibid.) Elsewhere too, there are references to Mascarin's legal knowledge (Caught in the Net, Chapters 10, and 25). He also has excellent detective skills, rivalling those of Sherlock Holmes, as we learn when Dr Hortebise confronts Countess du Mussidan with the information that letters stolen from her show that she knows what happened to de Croisenois's brother George when he vanished twenty-three years ago:

"People say, remarked he, that Mascarin never makes a mistake. One cannot help admiring his diabolical sagacity and unfailing logic. From the most trivial event he forges a long chain of evidence, as the botanist is able, as he picks up a withered leaf, to describe in detail the tree it came from." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 6)

Mascarin's actions destroy the family of Mussidan. After the blackmailers have departed, the Count and the Countess have an almighty domestic: "I could hardly keep my hands from clutching your ivory neck until life was extinct and failed utterly to decide whether I loved you or hated you the most!" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 13) In the course of the heated argument we learn that the Count's victim, his secretary Montlouis had a child with a shop-girl, and the Count supported the mother and the child. The scene is magnificently melodramatic with "the pent-up anger of twenty years." The argument is vitriolic and convincing, we see the facade of marriage collapsing before our eyes. And behind the door, Sabine is eaves-dropping on her parents. What can the poor innocent girl do but to swoon and develop fever? (Caught in the Net, Chapter 13).

"Success, perfect success!" said Hortebise gayly after is meeting with the Countess. (Caught in the Net, Chapter 6)

The scenes with Mascarin executing his plans begin to alternate with those where his opponents are coming together. This brings suspense and tension into the narrative, and Mascarin's success begins to look a little less certain.

Mascarin has not taken into account that Sabine has a secret lover. André is an artist and a stone-mason, both sensitive and manly. He is a foundling (Caught in the Net, Chapter 7), just like Paul, but that is where the similarities end, as Paul puts it: "this life of toil and self-denial, so different from his own selfish and idle career." (Ibid.) Sabine had "dared to cross that social abyss" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 8) and she and André have been for lovers for two years. Gradually he joins forces with Sabine's jilted fiancé de Breuhl-Flavery to save Sabine from what the two men are sure is a forced marriage.

"We can work well together in our different circles: you, in the world of fashion, can pick up intelligence that I could not hope to gain; while I from my lowly position will study the hidden side of his life, for I can talk to the servants ..." André suggests. "M. de Breuhl was delighted at finding that he could have some occupation which would fill up the dreary monotony of his life." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 24).

"Now, said André, ...we are on the track of De Croisenois." (Ibid.)

Mascarin, the master villain, very soon learns about André and the threat he poses:
"What! said he and clenched his hand firmly, 'shall the headstrong passion of this foolish boy mar my plans? Let him take care of himself; for if he walks in my path, he will find it a road that leads to his own destruction." (Chapter 19).

Gaboriau's plotting is excellent. The arrangement of the scenes and dropping of clues and hints about things to come are well balanced. Minor characters are used effectively; their appearances are natural rather than contrived and they stay in character throughout contributing to the plot in a way appropriate to each one.
We start with the villains appearing invincible, but just as we think that the du Mussidans are doomed, a band of friends emerges with the potential to thwart Mascarin.

De Croisenois's debts, George de Croisenois's mysterious disappearance, Sabine and André's fate, du Mussidans' marriage, and André and Paul's parentage and Paul's role in Mascarin's plot are all left open at the end of Caught in the Net. In the last chapter, Mascarin shifts the focus of the narrative, he shows his fellow-villains an encrypted note from Duchess de Champdoce pleading "Give me back our son," with a scribbled answer "No." The story continues written by Mascarin himself, and read by Paul Violaine "in a voice which quivered with emotion" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 27): Mascarin

"... opened a drawer, and drew from it a large pile of manuscript, which he waved over his head with an air of triumph."This is the greatest work I have ever done."" He hands it to Paul and tells him to read it carefully "Let nothing escape you, for there is not one item that has not its importance." (Ibid.) Good advice for Gaboriau's writing. The title of Mascarin's manuscript is The Mystery of Champdoce" just like the title of the second volume of this sensation novel.

Friday, 11 April 2014

"I Have Woven a Web of Gigantic Proportions"

"Please, M. Beaumarchef, register my name as Caroline Scheumal, and get me a real good place. ... It must be a cook, you understand, and I want to do the marketing without the missus dodging around. ... Try and find me a wealthy widower, or a young woman married to a very old fellow." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 2).

Caroline Schimmel (as she is called in the rest of the novel, this may be a type setter's error rather than the author's) is using the services of Mascarin's "registry office for the engagement of both male and female servants. ... Employers say that he sends them the best of servants, and the domestics in their turn assert that he only despatches them to good places." (Ibid.)  The applicant servants are carefully managed; Gaston de Gandelu's cook is "registered under class D, that is, for employment in rather fast establishments." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 10).

The registry office is a front, which allows Mascarin to place his spies in any of the respectable and noble households of Paris. As Mascarin explains: "The police pay enormous sums to their street agents, while I, without opening my purse, have an army of devoted adherents. I see perhaps fifty servants of both sexes daily; calculate what this will amount to in a year." (Caught in a Net, Chapter 18) Mascarin is a crafty businessman, and his business is information.

In his office, "busily engaged in arranging those pieces of cardboard" that he uses to file his information Mascarin mutters:

"What a stupendous undertaking! but I have to work single-handed, and hold in my hands all these threads, which for twenty years, with the patience of a spider, I have been weaving into a web. No one, seeing me here, would believe this. People who pass me by in the street say, 'That is Mascarin, who keeps a servants' registry office;' that is the way in which they look upon me. Let them laugh if they like; they little know the mighty power I wield in secret. No one suspects me, no, not one." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 10)

In a chapter entitled "An Infamous Trade" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 18), Mascarin explains his business plan to Marquis de Croisenau:

"Marquis, as the summer goes on, you know that the ripest and reddest cherries are the fullest flavored, just so, in the noblest and wealthiest of families in Paris there is not one that has not some terrible and ghostly secret which is sedulously concealed. Now, supposed that one man should gain possession of all of them, would he not be sole and absolute master? ... I will be that man!" (Ibid.)

Marquis sums it up as "nothing but an elaborate and extended system of blackmail." "Just so, Marquis, just so," Mascarin replies "with an ironical smile." He practices an ancient and well-established trade: "I know, at least, two thousand persons in Paris who exist by the exercise of this profession; for I have studied them all, from the convict who screws money out of his former companions, in penal servitude, to the titled villain, who, having discovered the frailty of some unhappy woman, forces her to give him her daughter as his wife." (Ibid.)

Paris, according to Mascarin, is a vast anthill of victims and those who prey on them, with an economic cycle where wealth and money is leeched out of respectable citizens to a gallery of rogues, who in turn aspire to respectability (like Mascarin and his partners) and become potential victims themselves for the next generation of blackmailers. Toto Chupin, a petty criminal in Mascarin's employ, is a member of this new generations scrabbling up through the criminal ranks driven by greed and ambition.

Now Mascarin has something planned something greater and more extraordinary than the run-of-the-mill business of a blackmailer. His twenty years of scheming are coming to fruition in "a serious undertaking ... full of peril." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3)

Mascarin, Dr Hortebise and Catenac  have been in cahoots ever since they were young men - in Chapter 17 Mascarin gives "a short account of the rise and progress of this association." Catenac, is a lawyer with a "special line of business. He assayed rather risky matters, which might bring both parties into the clutches of the criminal law, or at any rate, leave them with a taint upon both of their names" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 16). He is a gangsters' lawyer, Dr Hortebise is a medical charlatan: "He had recently taken to homeopathy, and started a medical journal, which he named The Globule, which died at its fifth number." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3)

Now, Mascarin explains: "we are getting old, and therefore have the greater reason for making one more grand stroke to assure our fortune. ... I have said this for years, and woven a web of gigantic proportions." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3) Mascarin has concocted two separate plots to secure himself a comfortable old age: "If only one out of two operations ... succeeds, our fortune is made." (Ibid.) One involves Marquis de Croisenau and the second is "the affair of the Duke de Champdoce" (Ibid.)

Somehow Paul Violaine is to be involved in these plots. "What do you think of Paul Violaine?" Mascarin asks Dr. Hortebise. "Suppose we found that he was honest!" Hortebise replies. "I do not think that there is any chance of that," Mascarin reassures him, "He is as weak as a woman, and as vain as a journalist. Besides, he is ashamed at being poor." (Ibid.) Paul is on his way to becoming a criminal apprentice without knowing it.

In Caught in the Net, we sit in at the meetings with the villains; we hear them explain their motivations, outline their plots and we see them squabble amongst themselves. But because Mascarin is holding his cards close to his chest, he does not reveal his entire scheme to us at any stage. Gaboriau is performing a skilful balancing act allowing the reader learn just enough of the villain's plans to keep us hooked. The villains discuss names, drop hints and refer to details that have not been explained. It is left to us to try and piece together this monstrous plot. As Dr Hortebise says at the end of Chapter 3: "If you are ready, ... we will make a start."

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Gaboriau Excels in Introductions

Caught in the Net has a bewildering multitude of characters from petty criminals and servants to wealthy merchants and members of the aristocracy - all of them thrashing around in a net of intrigue like so many plump fish ready to be gutted by M. Mascarin for his own enrichment. The novel cuts through all the layers of Parisian society and moves from the palaces of the rich to the abandoned warehouses used to train child-beggars. The setting is the whole of Paris and all its social classes. The title of the two volumes, The Slaves of Paris, reflects both the extent of Mascarin's machinations and the idea that the city of Paris turns all those who stray within its sphere into slaves to its commercial and financial system. Everyone in the novel is struggling to make (ever more) money, Mascarin included. He too, I would suggest, is a slave of Paris and caught in its net.

Gaboriau introduces his many characters in two ways: the main characters are given a quick but individual and memorable character sketch, like the ones of Rose Pigoreau, Paul Violaine and Daddy Tantaine I have already quoted; a similar word portrait is presented for each character who enters the action of the novel. But some, like Flavia, Duke de Champdoce, Mademoiselle du Mussidan and Catenac are first mentioned only by name in conversations of the other characters. This name-dropping has two effects: first, we are immediately interested by the role these characters will play in the narrative, and secondly we get a sense of a wider, populated world existing inside the narrative. The cliff-hanger at the end of the first chapter is an example of this: Daddy Tantaine, after getting a report from Toto Chupin about Rose's movements, says to himself: "All the improbabilities have turned to certainties, and matters are going straight. Won't Flavia be awfully pleased?" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 1). We have no idea who Flavia is or why she should be pleased by Rose making an assignation with a "young swell."  But we want to read on to find out.

Both of these techniques of bringing characters into the narrative: word-portraits and name-dropping, are effective. The name-dropping creates a sense of anticipation, and the distinctive word-portraits are vital in a tale with this many characters. It might be interesting to compare Gaboriau with Charles Dickens in this respect. Dickens, of course, is famous for his ability to create memorable characters with very few lines.

Gaboriau has some of this skill too. Here is Dr Hortebise, one of Mascarin's partners-in-crime:

"Dr. Hortebise ... was about fifty-six years of age, but he carried his years so well, that he always passed for forty-nine. He had a heavy pair of red, sensual-looking lips, his hair was untinted by gray, and his eyes still lustrous. A man who moved in the best society, eloquent in manner, a brilliant conversationalist, and vivid in his perceptions, he concealed under the veil of good-humoured sarcasm the utmost cynicism of mind. He was very popular and much sought after. He had but few faults, but quite a catalogue of appalling vices." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3).

And here is one their prospective victims, Sabine, Mademoiselle de Mussidan:

"Sabine was very beautiful, but hers was a different style of beauty from that of Rose, whoe ripe, sensuous charms were fitted to captivate the admiration of the voluptuary, while Sabine was of the most refined and ethereal character. Rose fettered the body with earthly trammels, Sabine drew the soul heavenward. Her beauty was not of the kind that dazzles, for the air of proud reserve which she threw over it, in some slight measure obscured its brilliance.
            She might have passed unnoticed, like the work of a great master's brush hanging neglected over the altar of a village church; but when the eye had once fathomed the hidden beauty, it never ceased to gaze on it with admiration. She had a broad forehead, covered with a wealth of chestnut hair, soft, lustrous eyes, and an exquisitely chiselled mouth." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 9).

In both descriptions the emphasis is not on what the character looks like; Sabine's chestnut hair and chiselled mouth are almost an afterthought at the end of her portrait. Rather, what is important in these portraits is the impression the character makes: how he or she is perceived and whether that perception is correct. Two points are worth noting about this: first, the characters are described in terms of their interactions with other characters (and readers): moving in high society, good conversationalist, proud reserve, might pass unnoticed. Secondly, the descriptions almost invariably hint that there is more to each character than meets the eye. They all have hidden faults, weaknesses, desires and beauty. As a result, the characters Gaboriau creates have depth and potential to engage our sympathies. In this way, Gaboriau breaths life into stereotypes of traditional melodrama (innocent heroines, gallant heroes and dastardly villains).

Talking about villains, M. Baptiste Mascarin ...

"... was an elderly man, with an unmistakable legal air about him. He was dressed in a quilted dressing-gown, fur-lined shoes, and had on his head an embroidered cap, most likely the work of the hands of some one dear to him. He wore a white cravat, and his sight compelled him to use coloured glasses." (Caught in the Net , Chapter 2).

Mascarin is described in benevolent terms: he appears trustworthy and wise ("legal air") and domesticated ("dressing-gown"), he cannot be evil if "some one dear to him" has gone through the trouble of making him a cap, and he wears it! This description differs from the other ones I have quoted, because in the case of Mascarin, we do not see underneath the surface. We see exactly what Mascarin wants us to see. We are not told what kind of an impression Mascarin makes, we simply get an impression. Mascarin is so masterfully devious that even the narrator cannot see beyond the image Mascarin wants to project..