Poe & the French Connection

A reporter asked Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1894 if he had been influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe.  The creator of Sherlock Holmes replied, “Oh, immensely!  His detective is the best detective in fiction.” 

The reporter asked if that assessment included Sherlock Holmes. 

“I make no exception…,” Conan Doyle declared.   “Dupin is unrivalled.”

Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin is the amateur detective who appears in Poe’s stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), predating Sherlock Holmes’s debut in A Study in Scarlet by nearly fifty years.   These tales have rightfully earned Poe the reputation as the father of the modern mystery.   Other writers, such as Dickens, wrote about crime and criminal enterprises, but no one before Poe made the crime and its detection the central plot.  Poe was the first to make the amateur detective a hero.  (It would be some time until writers dared cast an actual policeman as a hero given society’s fear and mistrust of the police.)  He’s also the creator of the “locked-room” puzzle, a plot device in which a murder is committed in a sealed room, a weapon is nowhere to be found, and there are no signs of forcible entry or exit.    Although Poe was an American, he chose to make his hero a Frenchman and set his stories in Paris. 

Like Holmes, Dupin carries on his investigations with a sidekick who serves as a stand-in for the reader, giving the detective the opportunity to voice his brilliant deductions.  But while Sherlock Holmes uses his keen observations to uncover otherwise hidden truths, Dupin has the ability to replicate the thought processes of others and in effect, read minds.  Julian Symons in Bloody Murder  characterizes Dupin as “an emotionless reasoning machine.”  By contrast, Holmes is hardly emotionless, but he does avoid emotional entanglements and, as many critics have pointed out, is something of a misanthrope.

Portrait of Edgar Allen Poe
Portrait of Edgar Allen Poe
(AP/Wide World)

Interestingly, though Conan Doyle openly acknowledged his debt to Poe, Sherlock Holmes dismisses the American author’s detective in one story when he tells Watson:  “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin… Now in my opinion, Dupin is a very inferior fellow.  That trick of his of breaking in on his friend’s thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.  He has some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.” 

It seems that Conan Doyle wanted to make it clear to his readers that his creation was only inspired by Dupin, not an Anglicized double.  Like all authors, Conan Doyle was proud of what he created and wanted his originality acknowledged.

Holmes is also critical of another popular fictional detective, Emile Gaboriau’s Inspector Lecoq.  “Lecoq was a miserable bungler…,” Holmes says.  “…he had only one thing to recommend him and that was his energy.  That book made me positively ill.  The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner.  I could have done it in twenty-four hours.  Lecoq took six months or so.”

Perhaps Conan Doyle wasn’t feeling particularly charitable on the day that he wrote those lines, but in truth Gaboriau is not a storyteller in the same class as Poe or Conan Doyle.  

Gaboriau (1833-1873) was well-versed in the ways of the Sûreté (the French security police), the local police of Paris, and the courts, and this knowledge gives his work an air of authenticity.   His police detective Lecoq first appears as a minor character in Gaboriau’s early stories, probably because he feared that his readers weren’t ready for a sympathetic policeman.  Lecoq gradually comes to the fore partnered with an amateur sleuth, then finally takes center stage by himself in Monsieur Lecoq (1869). 

Lecoq is described as “an old offender reconciled with the law,” one who had been wrongly convicted.   He is more observant than those around him, and like Holmes, uses these observations for his deductions.  For instance, a hand impression in the snow reveals traces of a wedding band on the right hand, and the marks of heavy, dragging footsteps in the snow lead Lecoq to conclude that the suspect is a middle-aged man.  (Middle age apparently was not as spry in the 19th century as it is today.  Gaboriau himself died at the age of 40.)  Lecoq is the first fictional detective to make plaster footprint casts and to use a striking clock as evidence of the time of a crime.  Like Sherlock Holmes, he is a master of disguise with an amazingly mobile face that he can “mold… according to his will, as the sculptor molds clay for modeling.”  Julian Symons in Bloody Murder characterizes Lecoq as “self-seeking and vain, but… also honest.”

This description could also fit the first and perhaps greatest real-life detective of all time, Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857).  It is no coincidence that Lecoq’s name is reminiscent of Vidocq’s.  Gaboriau correctly admired his real-life model, for Vidocq was indeed larger than life and in many ways a character of his own creation. 

Portrait of Eugene Francois Vidocq
Portrait of Eugene Francois Vidocq (CORBIS)

The son of a baker, Vidocq was imprisoned for forgery as a young man.  He escaped, and continued to escape each time he was apprehended; earning Vidocq the reputation as France’s slipperiest prisoner.  No prison could hold him.  Like Houdini, he could foil the most difficult locks.  Finally, the frustrated authorities made him an offer.  If he would spy on his fellow prisoners and report all information he gathered regarding ongoing crimes, his sentence would be reduced.  Vidocq proved to be so adept, he was eventually offered his freedom if he continued to spy for the police.

Vidocq firmly believed that it took a criminal to catch one, and he saw many flaws in Paris police work.  Napoleon was turning Paris into the jewel of Europe at the time, building monuments and renovating entire neighborhoods.  But what was the use of turning Paris into a showplace if no one would visit because of the appalling crime rate?  The emperor ordered his police minister Joseph Fouché to clean up the crime problem. Fouché allowed Vidocq to assemble a squadron of former thieves, embezzlers, and street toughs who would use their wiles to penetrate the underworld to not only solve crimes, but also sometimes prevent them.  Vidocq’s band of criminals turned officers was named the Sûreté and was the basis for what would become the modern Sûreté.

The Sûreté was soon the most effective police agency in all of France, perhaps in all the world.    Before Vidocq individual police precincts were autonomous agencies; they did not share information or pool resources.  One did not have to be a dastardly genius to figure out that by moving from precinct to precinct, one could avoid apprehension. Vidocq changed all that by keeping meticulous records and making that information available to all precincts.  He also made strides in footprint, handwriting and document analyses and even suggested methods for the use of fingerprints.  But first and foremost, Vidocq was a hands-on investigator who frequently disguised himself to gather intelligence from  the criminal class.  He maintained two personas for years—an old man and a street thug.  It was said that Vidocq could alter the perception of his height by dress and attitude.

Vidocq was also a master at public relations, and some accused him of instigating crimes so that he could earn high praise for solving them.  Oddly, for a man whose trade was stealth and disguise, he was something of a social butterfly. He dined out every night.  Among his close friends were the great authors Honoré Balzac and Victor Hugo.  Vidocq was said to have been the model for Balzac’s Inspector Vautrin in Le Père Goriot and the inspiration for both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Hugo’s Les Misèrables.  Vidocq’s memoirs, which were most likely ghostwritten, are filled with fabulous tales of all forms of skullduggery foiled by Vidocq’s brilliant detection and valiant rescues.   In all probability these tales were highly embellished, and in some cases complete fiction.  But Vidocq’s Mémoires can hardly detract from his accomplishments and innovations. 

Vidocq clearly was the primary model for Gaboriau’s Lecoq and Poe’s Dupin.  Why else would Poe have made his detective French?  Most likely Conan Doyle was well aware of Vidocq’s renown, but whether his inspiration for Holmes came second-hand from Poe and Gaboriau or directly from Vidocq’s Mémoires as well as other writings about him, there is no question that Sherlock Holmes’s lineage stretches back to Vidocq.

The particulars of Sherlock Holmes—his use of deductive reasoning, elaborate disguises, and scientific analysis to solve crimes—were the trademarks of Vidocq, but unlike Poe’s Dupin and Gaboriau’s Lecoq, there is nothing particularly French about Holmes.   Though moody and often mysterious, at the core Holmes is an Englishman, and for that aspect of his character, Conan Doyle most definitely had an Anglo-Saxon model.  

1. Sherlock Holmes

2. Dr. Bell

3. Poe & the French Connection

4. Elementary, My Dear Watson

5. Bibliography

6. The Author

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