Vidocq among the Parisians

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 19, 2014

I recently finished Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris. A few impressions:

“Files of the Sûreté,” a chapter on Vidocq, was my main motivation in checking this one out. It’s interesting reading. Robb’s portrait of Vidocq is different from my own; some quality of the con artist is nearly indispensable for a confidential agent, but Robb suggests a bit more of the former than I did. One particular vignette within the chapter, “The Case of the Yellow Curtains,” was also of particular interest because I also wrote about the same case in Brilliant Deduction, but Robb focused almost entirely on parts of the story I trimmed out, and vice versa.

Based on his notes, Robb used most of the same sources I did. Being fluent in French, he brought in one or two French works as well as an undoubtedly superior background in French history than I did; on the other hand, I read more widely into the history of detection and was probably better prepared to examine Vidocq within that context. In the end, I didn’t really find any significant incompatibility between the Vidocq in Parisians and my own sketch. The bottom line is that Vidocq was an intentionally chimeric figure. Even within a single account, I think that accurately depicting the “real” Vidocq means recognizing that there wasn’t any single, monolithic “truth” to him. As Robb writes, “So many murky tales are attached to Vidocq’s name that he seems to hover over nineteenth-century Paris like a phantom… The exact truth of these and other tales is almost impossible to separate from the mass of rumour and misinformation.”

For those interested in Vidocq, I think Parisians is largely optional reading, meanwhile. The most notable feature from this perspective is probably in the illustrations, which include a splendid cartoon of Vidocq in his office, drawn by Honoré Daumier in 1836. I had not seen this before, and given that no photos of the great detective are known, publication of any additional image is well worthwhile. Otherwise, though, “Files of the Sûreté” is about 18 pages long, and doesn’t contain much that other sources don’t cover, usually in greater detail. As for the other 370-some pages… I found Parisians very hit-or-miss.

I got through the whole thing, which is more than can be said of Robb’s Discovery of France. Which, it should be said, was critically acclaimed while I’m just some jerk with one self-published book and a blog or two, so one may take or leave my criticisms  for whatever they’re worth. That having been said, sometimes Parisians was fantastic, and sometimes it was a slog. Robb approached each chapter with a different, and sometimes wildly different, approach, and while I applaud the spirit of experimentation, I found that many of the individual experiments as well as the whole thing didn’t really work for me. Also, it’s worth noting for anyone else who might care, passive voice is used* with needless frequency throughout the work, and personally I found this a near constant annoyance.

Again, though, grammatical choices aside, this included some excellent chapters, and in all honesty there are a lot of histories of Paris already; trying something different is going to involve risk… which in this instance I don’t think paid off very well… but if you aren’t trying something different, writing yet another Paris history is probably not an especially worthwhile exercise in the first place.

* This is me making a joke.

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