Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
Émile Gaboriau is famous for having created the mysterious and unorthodox detective Monsieur Lecoq, and I have known about this character for a while but this is my first chance to read about him in action. Lecoq and the novels he features in were important building blocked in the development of detective fiction as a genre and Richard Dalby’s introduction is useful in contextualising these developments, along with the Gaboriau and Lecoq. Lecoq is said to be have been modelled on the Eugène François Vidoq, a real life detective who also had a criminal past and Lecoq’s methods for catching the guilty are not always orthodox. Although first published in France in 1867, the first accurate and readable English translation did not appear until 1907, completed by Ernest Tristan and The Detective Story Club didn’t include it in its list of books until 1929.
The Blackmailers (1867) begins with a bank robbery with Andre Fauvel’s bank losing 350000 francs. Only two people in the bank had a key and the letter combination to the safe the money was stored in and they were Andre Fauvel himself and his chief cashier, Prosper Bertomy. Unfortunately for Prosper, the case looks black against him. He was the only one to know about the money being put into the safe from the strong room and he is known to lead a riotous life and have gambling debts. Despite declaring his innocence and despite Monsieur Fanerlot’s doubts to his guilt (the policeman on the case, who is ‘nicknamed the squirrel on account of his agility,’) the Superintendent is sure he is the thief and he is arrested.
Although due to insufficient evidence Prosper is released later, Fanerlot and Lecoq of the French Sûreté are not prepared to give up on the case, which seems to involve many other people and has a long history. The key figures to emerge are Andre Fauvel’s wife and his adopted child Madeline, as well as Raoul de Lagors who is a relative of Fauvel’s wife and Marquis de Clameran, a friend of Raoul’s. A question which soon comes up is why did Madeline break off her courtship with Prosper? What are both of these women hiding? What is the true relationship between Clameran and Raoul? With Prosper released, Fanerlot and Lecoq undertake many disguises and insinuate themselves into the lives of the key figures mentioned above, soon showing that this is more than just a case of simple robbery. Various pieces of the case are discovered and Lecoq and reader both begin to try to put them into place. Unsurprisingly though Lecoq has far more pieces of the puzzle than we do, but instead in true Victorian fiction style we are treated to an extensive flashback going back many decades, showing how one fateful trip to an inn caused all of the present day suffering. The title of this novel probably gives you a hint as to the nature of what is happening, though Gaboriau still provides a few unexpected twists.
However, once we finally return to the present day of the novel it seems like Lecoq has little left to do to punish the guilty. Yet the impetuous Prosper, spurred on by emotional anguish writes one very fatal letter. Will it completely undo everything Lecoq has achieved or will Lecoq still be able to save the day?
Over all Thoughts
This novel is very much of its time period and having read a lot of Golden Age detective fiction lately, the change to Victorian crime fiction has been noticeable. For example the initial primary crime is one of robbery, rather than of murder and the use of disguise is employed much more freely in this investigation than it would in later works in the 1920s. We have women with troubling secrets and there is also the issue of hidden identities, crimes from long ago dug up and gossipy maids. Furthermore, as mentioned above there is the substantial flashback section which is akin to its descendent novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Above all I think a key difference between Victorian and Golden Age detective fiction revolves around the role of the reader. In this story the reader is more required to react to the situations uncovered rather than methodically try to solve the mystery. This is not a criticism of the novel as Gaboriau has an engaging writing style and tells his story well, but it does mean you have to go into the novel with different reading expectations. If you are looking for timetable, finger prints and floor plans you’ll be disappointed. I think the only qualm I had about the plot was the final but minor twist as it didn’t really work for me as it seemed a stretch to far. However, characterisation is a strong skill Gaboriau has in this work and I enjoyed the examination we get of Prosper as a person. His mistress Nina says of him:
‘It is impossible to read the heart of a man who is so far master of himself that what is passing in his heart never mounts to his eyes… He gambles in the same way that he sups and gets drunk – without passion and pleasure, but with a profound indifference which sometimes seems to me almost like despair. Nothing will ever remove the idea from my mind that he has a terrible secret in his life.’
Yet when we see him in the gaol it is revealed that Prosper is a man of feeling but he has suppressed them in order to fulfil his ambitions and I found this an interesting duality in him. Lecoq is also a captivating figure even if he is in disguise for most of the book. When working with Fanerlot it is obvious that Lecoq is the one in charge, though in some ways acts like the amateur expert detective who lets the official police figure take the credit. His reason for helping Fanerlot is obscured:
‘I am assisting you because it suits me to do so. I have reasons for not wishing to appear in the case, and I forbid you from mentioning my name in connection with it.’
Although in a way it is answered by the final twist which I didn’t enjoy. On the whole though this was an interesting story, well told and it made a refreshing change from the other books I have been reading lately so I would definitely recommend it.