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Please enjoy the following brief excerpt from the first chapter of Brilliant Deduction. (You may also download a PDF preview with a longer excerpt from chapter one, plus the entire introduction.)
“Observation is the first rule of investigation.” – Eugène François Vidocq
“It will give officer Lees rank with Vidocq and Macé,” the Marin County Journal boasted in 1880. Isaiah Lees, a San Francisco detective, had solved a mysterious disappearance that had stymied the local sheriff, and in lauding his accomplishment this was the highest praise the writer could offer. The comment itself is an interesting artifact of the field’s history. Within less than a decade, A Study in Scarlet would establish Sherlock Holmes as the ultimate company for detectives to seek. But with that convention still in the future, the northern California Journal was proposing its man as a peer of two real-life detectives instead.
Both were French. Gustave Macé was director of the French Sûreté, in that year, so he would have been in the news for his roles in one or two high profile cases. But why was the other man, a predecessor of Macé who had departed life in 1857, still named as a standard for other detectives a generation later and a quarter of the way around the world? And why has the name of Vidocq since been so completely forgotten outside of his native France?
An explanation of the second question may reveal itself, eventually, through examination of Vidocq and his varied successors. The most direct answer to the first question is, simply, that Vidocq was first.Again and again, in nearly every serious examination of detective history, Vidocq’s name turns up first. Jurgen Thorwald’s The Century of the Detective. Angus Hall’s The Crime Busters. Katherine Ramsland’s History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation. Even biographies of the field’s other luminaries often acknowledge Vidocq, at least briefly. Such consistency implies a good reason, and much of it may be found in the 1825 episode of a Monsieur Matthieu.
The Parisian Matthieu was un millionaire. One of his countrymen had invented the very term, a century earlier, and despite economic and political upheaval its essential meaning still held: he was a very rich man, indeed. When police found the wealthy gentleman dead in the grand house he had called home, they had no difficulty establishing a robbery as the likeliest explanation. In addition to Matthieu’s well known wealth, the crime scene suggested a violent struggle; though old, the late Matthieu had been a strong man, and many pieces of his furniture were smashed and broken. Unfortunately, an explanation of robbery offered no help in coming up with suspects. Tracing stolen objects offered little promise, either. As Matthieu had lived by himself in a house stuffed with curiosities and bric-a-brac, it was difficult even to establish what items were missing.
The police’s ally and rival Vidocq, founder of the dozen-year-old metropolitan detective department, took all of this in at a glance. Vidocq also took note of blood stains on the door latches and study floor, as well as the staircase. He insisted the stains be preserved, which, though a curious order at the time, now seems an obvious enough action. Vidocq’s next moves, however, were just the sort that made him both a legend in his time and a challenge to the credulity of later generations. The relatively respectable detective exchanged his own identity for that of a Monsieur Jules, war veteran, burglar and general purpose thug, who was quite familiar among the outlaws of Paris despite the fact that “Jules” did not exist except as a creation of Vidocq. In this disguise, Vidocq then began trawling the dens and hangouts of Jules’s tribe, i.e. criminal society.
After hours of searching grimy bars and cafés, he found a man matching exactly what the crime scene had suggested to his detective’s mind: a strong man, keeping disreputable company and, most importantly, very recently injured in a bloody brawl. Vidocq then casually picked a fight with this man Richard, and applied his own considerable strength to pummeling him, until finally the owner of the bar summoned the gendarmes. Just as officers arrived to pull them apart, Vidocq reached into his pocket for a clean cloth he had brought, and dabbed at a bloody wound that the fight had reopened above the astonished Richard’s eye.
Throughout his career, Vidocq studied and experimented with new methods for combating crime, whether organizational, procedural or technical. He had no formal advanced education or scientific training, but Vidocq still kept abreast of discoveries that might prove useful. By 1825, he knew how experiments had shown that an individual person’s dried blood, if exposed to certain chemicals, predictably turned different colors: crimson, pink, etc. So he obtained the appropriate materials and conducted tests on the cloth with Richard’s blood and on the blood stains leading away from M. Matthieu’s study. The results were identical.
This was crude evidence, and at the same time too sophisticated; such testing would not be admissible in a court room for many years. But what a detective can prove is never as important as what he can convince a suspect that he can prove, and Vidocq was as effective in applying this principle as anyone in history. His suspect in the case at hand, Richard, had been taken to jail following the barroom brawl. (The police had to release Vidocq, though many of them longed to throw him in a cell, too.) Vidocq confronted Richard with the blood test results and his reasoning in the case. In combination with the seeming wizardry performed on Richard’s blood, Vidocq’s confidence and reputation were enough to demolish the thief’s hopes of bluffing it out. Richard confessed. The press soon celebrated another coup for Vidocq, and blood analysis in detection, which in lesser hands might have fizzled and set back the cause of innovation, instead got an early start which encouraged further research.
Continued in the pages of Brilliant Deduction: The Story of Real-Life Great Detectives.