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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Happy birthday, Vidocq!

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jul 23, 2013

On this day (probably), 238 years ago: Eugène François Vidocq born in Arras, France. Happy birthday to the inventor of the detective profession and the private detective agency, and the inspiration for countless detective stories real and fictional.

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Detective fashion

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 5, 2013

I’m hardly an expert on fashion, either modern or historical. But I have given some thought to how it relates to the great detectives of my book, particularly after receiving one remarkable comment on the cover from a good friend: “Wait a second — I’m looking at their ties!  Holy crap — the first guy looks like 1820 – 1830s.  Then a civil-war era guy — then a 1880s – 1890s guy — then the last one from the 1930s or 40s?  Wow — quite the time range.”

This was one of those moments that remind you people how much people can surprise you, even after you’ve known them for years. I have no idea where it came from, but he just nailed it, without any background about the book’s content, from these photos alone:

Portraits from front cover of Brilliant Deduction

Right to left: Vidocq (prominent in the 1820s); Allan Pinkerton (prominent around the Civil War); William Burns (prominent in the 1890s); Ellis Parker (prominent c. 1930)

For my part, I hadn’t even consciously intended to arrange these portraits in a chronological order, or even realized that I had done so. Still, the discovery that four at least of the great detectives were very much men of their time in terms of style made quite a bit of sense upon thinking about it.

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Dark Portals, the Vidocq movie

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 6, 2013

Though none have really approached “major motion picture” status, three or four of the great detectives profiled in Brilliant Deduction have been the subject of at least one TV or film production. Given that most of these have been relatively obscure, I didn’t get around to viewing any for my book, but I have had it in mind to look for some of them and make notes here on the blog. Top of the list was Vidocq, a 2001 French production released to anglophone markets (only on DVD, so far as I know) as Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq. Recently I finally got hold of a copy and gave it a go.

Short version: I enjoyed it, and would probably watch it again, but it’s strange.

I suppose I should begin further comments from the perspective of my book, i.e. a nonfiction examination of the great detective. From that perspective there isn’t a lot to say, though; I’ll get to what the film is in a bit, but it is not really about the historical Vidocq to any considerable extent. The plot involves a series of murders in Paris, in 1830, investigated by a detective named Eugène François Vidocq. And the filmmakers were clearly aware of Vidocq’s real history; Gerard Depardieu manages to look more than a little like the few extant portraits of Vidocq (though the leather coat seemed odd, a bit more suited to The Matrix one might think, of which more later). And occasional hints of Vidocq’s real life and career turn up as asides: his origins as an informer; his quarrels with the prefecture of police; his experiments with blood chemistry, and paper. The filmmakers obviously had information about Vidocq.

They just didn’t do much with it. All of the details of the real Vidocq’s history are incidental; the character’s significance is never directly explained and the movie could easily have been made with no reference to Vidocq whatsoever. I’m not sure why it wasn’t, though IMDb’s trivia offers a hint, at least. It suggests that “The original on-spec screenplay by David Fakrikian featured Vidocq[‘s] origin, adapted from the 1967 TV series by Georges Neveux and Marcel Bluwal … but was rejected when the producers failed to obtain the TV series rights.” Apparently there was a 1967 television series about Vidocq, then, and apparently this somehow locked up the rights to the 19th-century Memoirs of a real historical person. Right, then. Anyway, that’s a little about what Dark Portals is not, and why; now for what it is and why I liked it anyway…

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Great detectives in winter

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 5, 2013

Figuratively, that is, i.e. “the lion in winter.” The story of real-life great detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction had its own beginning, middle and ending. But of course, the individuals within that larger story all had their own life-story arcs, as well. I’ve been thinking about those arcs’ trailing ends, lately. Note, I suppose what follows may be considered spoilers for my book…

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Runners-up: Alphonse Bertillon

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 2, 2013

The case for considering Alphonse Bertillon in an examination of great detectives, and the reason for excluding him from my eventual final nine, are both neatly expressed in a passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

‘I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognize that I am myself an unpractical man, and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognising, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—’

‘Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be first?’ asked Holmes, with some asperity.

‘To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.’

‘Then had you better not consult him?’

‘I said, sir, to the precisely scientific mind. But as a practical man of affairs it is acknowledged that you stand alone.’

Just so: among the broad universe of criminology, Alphonse Bertillon is absolutely a major figure, but, within criminology’s more practical sphere, i.e. detection, Bertillon cannot be ranked with either Sherlock Holmes or his real-life counterparts because Bertillon was not a practicing detective.

Even so, one encounters Bertillon’s name consistently in studying the early history of detection, and with good reason. Bertillon was more a theorist, or perhaps a technician, but as such he was unquestionably an important influence on the profession.

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Brilliant connections

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 31, 2013

The era of renowned detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction lasted close to 150 years. But the individual careers highlighted were spread out through that time, and each overlapped with at least a few others. In many cases, they nonetheless plied their trade in parallel with one another. Geographic distance played a large role in this, of course; crossing North America or the Atlantic Ocean was a loooong trip for much of that time. Direct connections between my main characters are therefore few in number.

Remarkably, however, nearly every one of them had some direct contact with at least one of his peers.

Vidocq is one of the two outliers in my history; he was so far ahead of everyone else in the pursuit of professionalized detection that his career was winding up as others were just getting started. But he made up for it by living quite a long time. As a result he was able to see other nations set up detective bureaus inspired by his Sûreté, such as Scotland Yard in neighboring Britain, and even to enjoy some of the acclaim owed him for it when Scotland Yard officers visited Paris and then hosted him in London, later.

I’m almost certain that this second event must have involved some sort of meeting between Vidocq and Jonathan Whicher. I don’t have any information stating specifically that they met, but beyond that, it seems almost impossible that they wouldn’t have. Whicher was one of Scotland Yard’s original eight detectives in 1842, and the force hadn’t grown much when Vidocq paid them a visit just a few years later. The image is appealing, as a kind of passing-the-baton moment between the first of this new breed of investigator and one of his first prominent successors (Whicher’s life and detective career are the next-earliest after Vidocq’s, out of my final nine). But it is, as noted, speculation.

The same goes for any contact between Whicher and “Paddington” Pollaky, though here, too, the circumstantial evidence is considerable and likely even greater than that for the earlier perhaps-meeting. Whicher and Pollaky worked alongside one another as detectives in London for 30 years, from Pollaky’s arrival in Britain to Whicher’s retirement—nearly the whole length of Pollaky’s own career. Before setting up his own Private Inquiry Office, Pollaky regularly worked as an interpreter for the police and courts, and also spent a few years working for the private detective firm of Charles Field; Field was a former Scotland Yard detective, himself, and a good friend of Whicher. Pollaky even had a minor role in the aftermath of Whicher’s most infamous case, the Road child murder, most likely at Field’s behest. While the two detectives’ parts in that affair probably did not overlap, it seems inconceivable that they didn’t meet at least once in some other circumstance given their overlapping circles of acquaintances and the length of time involved.

That’s mostly it for direct contact involving any of my European cast members… there were opportunities for some of the American detectives to meet their Old World peers, but much less evidence they did so. I’ll return to that in another post.

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In the jailhouse now

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 16, 2013

Being a prominent detective had its up-sides. Fame, for a time; in a few cases wealth. It also carried considerable risks, trouble with the law being one of the biggest. After all, the position usually meant being regularly associated with criminals, and a constant “person of interest” to law enforcement. That’s like two strikes, right there. Three strikes and you’re in—jail.

Of the nine men profiled in Brilliant Deduction, nearly half were sentenced to serve time behind bars, after they had established reputations as detectives.

Vidocq was in and out of jails regularly in his youth, before changing sides, but long after he had made immeasurable contributions to policing history, the Paris gendarmes still threw him into the Conciergerie.

Isaiah Lees spent a brief period in jail early in his career with the SFPD, mainly for arguing with a particularly combative chief, though he found himself in hot water with the law a further time or two as well. (For what it’s worth, another SFPD chief went to jail, himself, during one of those later episodes; it was a rowdy era, you might say.)

After years of controversies and legal scuffling, William Burns was sentenced to jail late in his career for what he called jury surveillance and his opponents called jury tampering. As with an earlier case in which he was briefly wanted by the police, though, Burns avoided actually having the jail door clang shut on him…

Ellis Parker, however, was not so fortunate, and effectively ended his career with a lengthy prison sentence. The jury recommended leniency, and a public outcry eventually demanded a pardon, though neither did Parker much good in the end.

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The Detective Museum

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 10, 2013

There is a P.I. Museum in San Diego, and a Spy and Private Eye Museum in Austin, Texas. I’ve never been to either, though both have interesting online collections.

But, I’ve started to wonder what a museum or museum exhibit about the great detectives profiled in Brilliant Deduction might include. It’s basically just a play-pretend exercise, but it’s interesting enough; what one or two items might I want to display for each of the investigators I’ve described?

Vidocq made more use of disguise than any of his notable peers, and perhaps more than any detective real or imagined other than Sherlock Holmes. If some of his costumes or other paraphernalia had been preserved, it would be a must-see display. I might also want to include examples of his file-card record system, which represented a major advance in durable, systematized approaches to criminal investigation.

For Jonathan Whicher, I can’t help thinking of the “relics” from the Road child murder investigation that he apparently held on to after the case and his entire career imploded, only for them (and Whicher) to get a second hearing of sorts, years later.

Allan Pinkerton’s detective career began with counterfeiting investigations, and that crime played an important role throughout detective history, so a few samples would make ideal displays. Perhaps even one of the counterfeit dimes from his very first foray into detective work. Any kind of records would also be appropriate, as Pinkerton was ultimately as or more important as an administrator and entrepreneur than as a field man.

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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.

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