My friend, Vidocq

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 2, 2013

There are at least two good reasons why Brilliant Deduction devotes its first chapter to Vidocq. First, Vidocq’s career essentially is the beginning of the story of professional detectives and great detectives, both. Second, it is simply fantastic material. All of the great detectives I chose to examine have remarkable stories, but only one or two really even approach Vidocq in terms of epic-novel drama. Romance, revolution, intrigues, sudden reversals of fortune and, at the center of it all, a man every bit as grand as the events surrounding him. Vidocq was an incredibly human figure who lived incredibly large.

I suspect, however, that my own account of Vidocq might have a special richness—at any rate all of my early reviewers described it as a highlight of the work—because I enjoyed a small advantage. In reading about the great French sleuth, I began to feel that I had a real sense of what it was like to know this person because he began to remind me more and more of someone I actually know. In so much of what I discovered about Vidocq, I recognized one of my own oldest friends.

My friend is not French. He is not a veteran. He does not operate a detective agency, and he certainly has never worked for the police. On the other hand, he has had his quarrels with them and, if they have not been on quite the same scale, they seem to partake of much the same flavor as Vidocq’s feud with the gendarmes.

My friend is a very, very smart man who has thus far led an adventurous and unconventional life and shows no indication of slowing down yet. In his mid-30s he is, I believe, working on at least his fourth entirely different career. Mostly out of boredom, I suspect, given that he has excelled in every one he has attempted so far. He hasn’t pioneered advances in ballistics or blood chemistry—yet—but the man is certainly inventive. A few years ago he decided to build a boat, from scratch, with no particular background or experience, and proceeded to do so.

Above all, though, I think it’s his presence I’m reminded of in reading about Vidocq. Like the great detective, my friend is not unusually tall but is broad; one recognizes right away both an imposing physical force, and the hint (entirely valid) of an intellect long resigned to being so far ahead of most of those around it that most interactions involve an element of bemused, but (usually) patient humoring. As with Vidocq, moreover, this combination seems to have a naturally magnetic effect on 1) members of the opposite sex and 2) trouble.

My friend’s stories could, I think, rival anything in the Memoirs for liveliness. One in particular resembled in uncanny detail an adventure of Vidocq, years before I had ever heard of him. Like Vidocq, my friend once (again, very likely out of boredom) also enjoyed playing with assumed identities in overlapping social circles, and was amazingly effective in convincing people who had already met him that he was someone else. Never to more humorous results, however, than when an offended young man, himself clearly overmatched physically, announced that he was going to call in a very good friend and known tough guy to back him up… then dialed his good friend’s number only for my friend’s own phone to ring, immediately, upon which he naturally answered and replied. With an almost pitying but very satisfied smile, expressing with no further words the plain message “we don’t need to discuss this any further, do we.”

The account of a similar event in Vidocq’s life played out somewhat more slowly, alas, in the absence of cell phones. Had they existed in the early 19th century, however, and therefore allowed Vidocq to experience the same little irony in real time and in person… I believe I can picture, perfectly, the expression his face would have borne.

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