Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Monseiur Lecoq by Émile Gaboriau

A brilliant work of pre-Sherlock detective fiction
In the genre of detective fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes is considered the benchmark by which all other fictional sleuths are judged. Many are quick to point out, however, that Conan Doyle did not invent the genre. Edgar Allen Poe is often credited as the founder of modern detective fiction with his 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and its detective C. Auguste Dupin cited as an obviously influential forerunner of Holmes. Between Poe and Conan Doyle, however, there was another excellent pioneering detective novelist who has largely faded into obscurity: Émile Gaboriau. In 1869, almost two decades before Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, the Frenchman Gaboriau published his brilliant novel Monsieur Lecoq. Incredibly long but never boring, Monsieur Lecoq, like many lengthy novels of its day, was published in two volumes. The first book, subtitled The Inquiry, is a delightfully complex cat-and-mouse game between a police detective and the suspected murderer he hopes to convict. The second volume, subtitled The Honor of the Name, tells the back story of the crime in a dramatic tale of romance and revenge that’s on a par with the epics of Balzac, Victor Hugo, or Alexandre Dumas, such as The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Misérables.

As the novel opens, the Paris police are responding to a disturbance at a tavern in a seedy neighborhood. Upon entering the establishment, they find two dead bodies and one man in the process of dying from a head wound. The apparent killer attempts to escape out the back door but is apprehended. Among the detectives present is a celebrated veteran named Gévrol who settles for a simple explanation to what he perceives as a typical crime. An up-and-coming young detective named Lecoq, looking to prove his mettle, begs to differ with his superior and asks to be given the opportunity to further investigate the crime scene. Upon examining the site, Lecoq discovers footprints in the snow that indicate the presence of additional persons at the scene, possibly accomplices to the crime. Additional evidence shows that this murder was no simple affair. Employing his prodigious faculty of deductive reasoning, Lecoq formulates a theory of the incident that is ridiculed by his coworkers, yet he risks his career to pursue the truth. What follows is an ingenious police procedural which never ceases to baffle and amaze. Every time Lecoq formulates a strategy for solving the case, and the reader thinks he’s got it figured out, the suspect thwarts their efforts with new twists that make the case even more complicated and puzzling.

The second part of the novel explains the events leading up to the mysterious crime by tracing the lives of the characters involved back forty or fifty years to the time of the Bourbon Restoration of 1815. As the ramifications of Revolutionary turmoil play out in a formerly peaceful rural district, fortunes are lost and gained, lives are changed forever, and violence erupts, sparking an animosity between families that lingers for decades. Just as Holmes often disappears for a few chapters in his novels, Lecoq is almost entirely absent from this second volume. Nevertheless, it is an essential component to Gaboriau’s grand scheme. The length and complexity of this sweeping narrative can be frustrating at times, but the patient reader is richly rewarded.

After reading Monsieur Lecoq, it is difficult to understand why Gaboriau is not a household name like Conan Doyle, Poe, or Dumas. If this book is an accurate indication of his body of work, he certainly deserves greater renown. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, Monsieur Lecoq may be too labor intensive for the casual reader, but it definitely deserves to be read by any enthusiast of French literature or detective fiction.
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