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The Armchair Detective
Vol. 22 No. 4
Fall 1989

The French Connection

A short history of the roman policier from Vidocq (the real-life founder of the Sûreté) to Simenon's Maigret to France's current bestselling crime writer, Frédéric Dard

By Susan L. Dorff

C. Auguste Dupin, the first Great Detective in fiction, was an American's idea of a Frenchman. Edgar Allan Poe created him in his own image rather than after the real-life original, François Eugene Vidocq, whose memoirs had inspired the new tales of ratiocination. Although he borrowed Vidocq's nationality for its reputed logic, Poe rejected as role model the first Great Detective in fact for his want of it.

Like Poe, Dupin was both analytical and aloof. Whereas his celebrated method included both observation and deduction, he could dispense with the former and manage in absentia. A former aristocrat become one of the idle poor, Chevalier Dupin nevertheless remained a snob. He solved cases independently while permitting an intellectually inferior companion to chronicle them. Finally, like his creator, the brilliant amateur had little respect for the work of professionals:

The Parisian police ... are cunning, but no more. There is no method in their proceedings, beyond the method of the moment. ... Vidocq, for example, was a good guesser, and a persevering man. But, without educated thought, he erred continually by the very intensity of his investigations. He impaired his vision by holding his object too close. He might see, perhaps, one or two points with unusual clearness, but in so doing he, necessarily, lost sight of the matter as a whole. ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue")

Dupin, the thinking man's hero, has since served as the model for every cerebral crime fighter to follow.

H. D. Thompson, in Masters of Mystery, aptly observes that "if national characteristics are taken into account, then the French detective story should be pre-eminently rational. And that is just what it is not."1 Likewise the French detective hero. The roman policier, popularly abbreviated as the "polar," developed not as it should have, that is, according to the Poe-Dupin model, but as it did — à la Vidocq. And, rooted in its own history, its heroes are more grounded in reality.

François Eugene Vidocq (1775-1857), the son of a baker, was a man of the people. He spent his formative years as a soldier, acrobat, forger, swindler, thief, and highwayman. He was frequently imprisoned and as frequently escaped. His fifty or sixty successful evasions won him due fame in the French underworld. A master of disguise, between prison engagements he survived by assuming different identities. At last, however, the only exit for the ex-con who was tired of it all was informing. He began police work as a spy and therein found his true vocation.

Vidocq applied the same methods as cop that had worked for him as crook: observation and impersonation. Not content, however, with merely visiting the scenes of the crime, he immersed himself in them. He knew from his own travels the language and landscape of criminals. Moreover, he had acquired a taste for their barrooms, brothels, and boarding houses.

Impersonation was the natural corollary to observation. To continue seeing without being seen called for more than a clever disguise, and so Vidocq immersed himself in as many different identities as criminal milieus. A born actor, he threw himself into his parts, which ranged from pickpockets to foreign merchants. He became the characters he played and adapted his voice, his gestures, his gait to each one.

In 1811, Vidocq founded the French Sûreté, the first detective police force. His agents were former convicts recruited for their first-hand knowledge of crime. They worked in plain clothes or in disguise, the better to infiltrate the criminal world over which they kept watch. The brigade's immense success was as controversial as it was unequivocal.

Vidocq was a pragmatist who relied more on native wit than on Cartesian logic. He was also a man of science who experimented with fingerprinting and invisible inks. He kept detailed files on criminals, conducted blood and ballistics tests, and pioneered handwriting analysis as well. He not only revolutionized the science of detection but the art of detective fiction. He provided Dupin's favorite son, the inimitable Sherlock Holmes, with the tools of his trade.

From the beginning of his career, Vidocq acted as his own best publicity agent by virtue of his own boasting and calculated press releases. Four volumes of Mémoirs (1828-29) mingled fact with fiction in lurid case histories and guaranteed his legend. More importantly, however, for the development of the polar, Vidocq added yet another dimension to his story by becoming its chronicler.

If Poe preferred his own idealized French hero to the real thing, Vidocq's compatriots did not. The growing detective fiction in France would, après Vidocq, be essentially policier. The French detective hero would employ the Vidocq method, or better, anti-method of observation and impersonation. Like his prototype, he would often double as cop and robber, hero and villain, author and narrator of his own deeds. The resultant ambiguity would make of the roman policier the Who's Who of the new genre.

The first important Vidocq-figure to appear was Inspector Lecoq. His creator, Émile Gaboriau, wrote lengthy narratives of family intrigue wherein the blood flowed thicker than water. Just as Poe had invented Dupin to do his thinking for him, so Gaboriau created Lecoq to unravel his tangled yarns of the skeleton in the closet.

Lecoq made his debut inauspiciously in Gaboriau's first mystery novel, The Widow Lerouge (1866); by Lecoq the Detective (1869), he had earned the title role. His career in the Sûreté, by way of the underworld, roughly paralleled Vidocq's. He too developed valuable crimefighting techniques, which included plaster casts of footprints and tests of when a bed had been slept in. As for method, he too was a master of disguise who lost himself in the other he pursued.

In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes calls Lecoq "a miserable bungler." Certainly, as he claims, Holmes could have solved in 24 hours what for Lecoq required some six months. Was the French detective's ineptness demanded by Gaboriau's preferred literary form, the novel, or vice versa? Regardless, if it were true that Lecoq often made mistakes before stumbling onto solutions, this was perhaps the price of the greater realism that marked the roman policier from the start. Moreover, Lecoq's talent lay less in rendering ostensibly absurd clues intelligible than in shedding light on the protagonist's past. By induction, rather than deduction, the French detective turned the novel's world upside down to see what was hidden underneath. From its inception, the locked rooms of the French mystery were the places of the heart.


Detective fiction often got its Channel crossed. At the turn of the century, Maurice Leblanc created Arsène Lupin in the hope that he would be to France what Sherlock Holmes was to England — and more. Lupin, the gentleman-thief, was both super-detective and arch-criminal rolled into one Frenchman.

Lupin was introduced on board the Provence in "Arsène Lupin's Arrest," in which an unidentified "I" narrates the events of a transatlantic crossing. The second day at sea, the passengers are warned that Arsène Lupin, the known and feared burglar, is traveling among them. Passengers fitting his telegraphed description are suspected and exonerated one by one. As the plot thickens, the terror mounts: "It was that the menace did not emanate from a single and therefore less dangerous individual. Arsène Lupin was now... everyone."

Upon arrival in America, the narrator, now revealed as Arsène Lupin himself, is arrested, and his friend and chronicler picks up the thread of the story. Leblanc's tour-de-force, twenty years before Roger Ackroyd, made of the French whodunit a who-is-it. Arsène Lupin was Everyman.

Like Vidocq and Lecoq, Lupin was a man of a thousand faces, at different times a chauffeur, a bookmaker, an old man, a traveling salesman, a Russian doctor, a Spanish bullfighter, and on and on. His mastery of disguise was more philosophy than trickery, however. "Why," he asked, "should I have a definite appearance? Why not avoid the danger of an always identical personality? My acts define me sufficiently." He nonetheless admitted the danger of changing personalities like shirts: "[I]t happens that one is no longer able to recognize oneself and that is sad."

Lupin's method, like that of his predecessors, was more psychological than syllogistic. In the Cahorn Affair, for example, Lupin knows that the only secret passage to the impregnable Malaquais Castle is through the mind of its rich proprietor, the Baron Cahorn. He orchestrates the theft from his cell at the Santé, where he remains incarcerated throughout the story. First, he writes Cahorn, demanding that he turn over his precious goods to him or expect them to be stolen. Cahorn, who can only be moved by fear of loss, turns for help to Lupin's sworn enemy, Inspector Ganimard, who happens to be vacationing in the area, according to a local newspaper. Cahorn has to persuade this Ganimard, who of course is a false one, to stay with him for protection on the designated night. Thus Lupin's colleagues gain entry to the castle and remove the valuables from under Cahorn's very nose. When the real Ganimard is at last consulted, he bypasses the scene of the crime and heads straight to Lupin's cell for its solution. There the prisoner exposes all while Ganimard, an unwitting Watson, unabashedly admires.

Although the police usually took a beating in the Lupin stories, the gentleman-thief at last restored their dignity by joining them. In "The Mysterious Voyager," he collaborated with them in order to recoup the loss of money and papers he had suffered at the hands of a dangerous assassin on a train en route to Rouen. In "813," accused of murder, he headed an investigation to clear himself. And for four years, he posed as Lenormand, the chief of the Sûreté, and conducted investigations into his own activities.

Lupin succeeded as a detective because he knew the criminal mind as he knew his own. Gaston Leroux created a more sinister version of the criminal cop in the classic locked-room mystery La Chambre jaune, published the same year as the first Arsène Lupin.

The perpetrator of the crimes of the yellow room is Frédéric Larsan, the detective sent to investigate them. He is unmasked at the end by the eager-beaver police reporter, Rouletabille, as the arch-criminal Ballmeyer, thought dead but in fact employed for some time at the Sûreté.

If, at the start of the century, Arsene Lupin was the enfant terrible of the polar, the 1930s produced its bon papa. Inspector Maigret made his first public appearance in M. Gallet, décédé (1931) and went on to become, over the next forty years and 84 titles, the French detective hero par excellence.

Chandler and Hammett both rated Maigret's creator, Georges Simenon, as their favorite mystery author. The hardboiled writers undoubtedly appreciated the realist mode of his novels, written in the unadorned style that was in the very image of their heroes. Simenon, like his plain-speaking detective, took care to call a tree a tree, not a cedar.2

The author's first volume of memoirs was entitled A Man Like Any Other. The epithet might also have served Maigret, whose everyday heroism was portrayed as a mere counterpoint to the bureaucratic routine at the Quai and the cozy domesticity of the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. The Commissaire was the classic civil servant, to his very grumbling over daily reports. Catching crooks, he was just doing his job. He seems at first only distantly related to his more flamboyant precursors. He was no ex-con but a choirboy cop with a solidly petit bourgeois past and present. He rose through the official ranks to the post of commissioner after pounding a beat, patrolling railway stations, and working with the vice squad.


However understated Maigret's style might appear compared to that of earlier detectives, he was no less the legitimate heir to their method. His concentrated observation bordered on voyeurism. Here he worked in complicity with his creator, whose artistic strength lay in evoking a place or an atmosphere with a few deft strokes of the pen. Maigret stared, strolled, smelled his way into the scene of the crime. He would plant himself in the local café, where he inhaled its ambiance and imbibed its spirit(s), whether a vin de Sancerre or several shots of Calvados. He ruminated, not ratiocinated.

Although his celebrated bulk would be impossible to disguise, he was no less adept at impersonation than Vidocq, Lecoq, or Lupin. Early in his career, as a mere secretary to a Commissaire LeBret, Maigret mused over the nonexistent calling which he imagined to be his, that of raccommodeur de destins: "a mender of destinies... a man who would understand at first glance the fate of another," Simenon wrote in La Première Enquête de Maigret. "Perhaps he didn't need to be exceptionally intelligent? ... Because he was capable of living the life of all men, of putting himself 'inside the skin' of all men." Thus Maigret declared his allegiance to the traditional anti-méthode of the French polar, which posited intuition over intelligence. He would uncover another's mystery by first losing himself in it.


For Maigret, the construction of character prevailed over the reconstruction of crimes. The opening lines of M. Gallet, décédé, for example, which introduce Maigret to the corpse, immediately focused the attention on the person, not the problem: "The very first contact between Maigret and the dead man, with whom he was going to live for weeks in the most disconcerting intimacy, took place June 27, 1936 under circumstances at the same time banal, painful and unforgettable."

Maigret proceeds directly to the victim's foyer, completely bypassing the hotel room in which he was shot. (Holmes would have headed there straightaway and deduced the rigged suicide tout de suite and reduced the novel to a short story.) Maigret keeps a photo of the late Gallet with him throughout the investigation, more as talisman than clue. He adds touches to it until the portrait is complete: a liver ailment, a silver-plate salesman turned con artist, a passion for gadgetry, etc. He responds to Gallet, Jr.'s remarks on his method with: "I will know the killer when I know the victim."

As Maigret gradually puts himself more and more inside the skin of the other, he becomes less and less himself — or perhaps more, as he begins to appear more opaque. He slowly joins the class of miserable bunglers, seeming more obtuse. He speaks less, mutters more: "Suppose I were Gallet ... ." He sleeps poorly, becomes feverish, a haunted man. He at last reaches a point at which, with the occasional help of a cold (Paris weather being what it is) or a rap on the head and a subsequent delirium, he will awaken knowing.

Writer Marcel Aymé has compared Maigret's required state of meditation prior to solving a crime to that of the novelist at work.3 In fact, Simenon's own legendary writing methods had a lot in common with his detective's.

He immersed himself in his protagonist and the environment of the story to the total neglect of all other matters, writing out a chapter a day for eight to eleven days until he had a completed manuscript. He claimed that he could not write longer works because he was unable to tolerate this degree of identification much longer than two weeks.4

For Simenon, a case solved was a closed book. He has admitted that he has never known who was the criminal before Maigret. In all the books he has written since Pietr-le-letton, he has never known the plot in advance, nor even where the story would go from one day to the next, from one chapter to the next. He and Maigret would investigate the crime together as it unfolded before them both.

The roman policier has traditionally valued induction over deduction, the building up of character over the breaking down of a crime. Its concern for character has rendered it more realistic, though perhaps less puzzling, than the Poe-derived mystery. Moreover, in both a literal and literary sense, its detective heroes have been the authors of its crimes: Vidocq created his own fictional persona, Gaboriau a detective suited to his crimes; Lupin made, solved, and sometimes narrated his own mysteries; finally, Maigret's method was the very subtext of Simenon's own creative process.

Simenon had been publishing under various pseudonyms for years before putting his real name to the first Maigrets. His signature thus sealed a unique literary partnership with his detective hero. In Les Mémoires de Maigret, whose ostensible author is Maigret, he gives his detective a chance to tell his side of their story. In the only first-person narrative of the series, Maigret finally spoke for himself. This curious work revealed more than any other, including Simenon's own protracted memoirs, the singular nature of their relationship.

In the Mémoires the young Sim enters brashly, like a Rouletabille, as a cub reporter from Liège come to interview Maigret. For a time, he applies la méthode Maigret to Maigret himself: he watches, waits, absorbs the commissioner at the Quai and at home. He takes no notes; he asks few questions. After a while, he goes away, only to be replaced by his novels, in which Maigret is the central character.

Maigret's main preoccupation in his memoirs is to set the record straight. As the subject of the photograph, he feels compelled to correct the likeness. First, he grumbles over the little inaccuracies. The bowler hat, for example, he only wore on rare occasions, to funerals or official ceremonies, like the overcoat with the velvet collar; perhaps he did have one, but it, too, was worn rarely, only on the very coldest days. And he never had the coal-burning stove moved to his office, as commissaire. Finally, he reveals that what is really bothering him is being mistaken for his portrait: he, the real Maigret, for Simenon's Maigret.

Maigret then reports an earlier conversation during which Simenon defended his right as a novelist to "arrange the truth" in order to make it "truer" — like Doric columns, he explained, which are constructed slightly curved in order to appear perfectly straight. Sure, the author knows that a commissioner of the Sûreté does not walk the streets himself, questioning concierges, that the job is really done by fifty anonymous inspectors. But, as chief, is it not as though he were really there himself? And the mundane reality would only confuse the reader. One has to simplify.

Maigret gets closer to the heart of the matter: must he, too, be simplified? At the beginning, yes, but Simenon, with a demonstration of his own artistic method, which is precisely that of his detective, promises him a fuller future:

"For the moment, you are yet but a silhouette, a back, a pipe, a way of talking, of grumbling ... Little by little you will begin to live a more subtle, a more complex life. For example, until now you've no family life, although the Boulevard Richard Lenoir and Mme Maigret constitute a good half of your existence. So far you've only called home, but we'll see you there."
"In robe and slippers?"
"In your bed even."
"I wear nightshirts."
"I know. I complete you. Even if you were used to pajamas, I would have put you in a nightshirt."

But Maigret will have the last word. Simenon, at the time that Maigret is supposedly penning the memoirs, has himself reached the age of the detective at their first meeting. Maigret chides him:

"Do you know that with the years you have started to walk, to smoke your pipe, indeed to speak like your Maigret?"

It's a little as if, late in the day, he began to mistake himself for me!


Both Simenon and Maigret have now retired: the writer to Lausanne, Switzerland; his detective, with Mme Maigret, to Meung-sur-Loire. Echoing earlier French detectives, in life and letters, and speaking for himself and Maigret, Simenon explained his decision to give up fiction in this way: "For the last fifty-five years, I have lived 'in the skin of my characters.' Now I want to live my own life."5

Whereas Maigret has remained an international bestseller, the current king of the kiosks in France is also one of her best-kept secrets. San Antonio, who, like Maigret, constitutes a market in himself, has put even Simenon's remarkable fecundity to shame. There here are over 100 million San Antonios in circulation. Some 118 different titles are listed in Laissez pousser les asperges, published in 1985. Each new San Antonio is published in 600,000 mass-market paperbacks and 400,000 large-format editions.6

After the war, the hardboiled American novel, the offspring of Hammett and Chandler, translated into the roman noir in France. Although the French never had to give murder back to those who do it best, the polar went into brief eclipse. While the police were rendered hors de combat, the underworld policed its own rififi and French writers struggled to be published under American pseudonyms and fake translation credits.

Frédéric Dard began his career writing the rigorously constructed straight crime novel. He still does, while signing a more exotic nom de plume to the outrageous adventures of his commissaire extraordinaire, San Antonio. Unlike the Maigret/Simenon team, with San Antonio as ostensible author and detective hero, there was none of the struggle over who would tell the tale. San-A. took the offensive as first-person narrator and usually was.

San-A. put the humor back into the noir. He dug up cadavers in his friend's back yard, discovered the "tout Paris" in a dead faint, and investigated his own demise.7 Writing in an untranslatable argot that pushed tough-guy talk to its Rabelaisian limits, he comically mixed metaphors with polymorphous puns and malapropisms. His working-class idiom delighted intellectual and blue-collar readers alike, while his literary bon mots kept everyone laughing.

The early Sanas were rationally plotted and carefully respected the laws of the genre. The rigid structure gradually eroded, however, giving way to a labyrinth of commentary and sidesteps. As San Antonio deviated more than he detected, he never hesitated to disrupt the already attenuated intrigue with private musings, unsolicited advice, answers to unasked questions, and occasional affronts to the reader. And yet the digressions did not divert the action; they were the action of these roman policiers of the absurd.

The recently published Laissez pousser les asperges ("Let the asparagus grow") is a good illustration of the state of the art of péripétie chez Sana. In it, he is called in by a certain M. Lesbrouf, the French king of "ready-to-wear," member of the great "moije" family (those who begin every enunciation with "me, I ... "), and impassioned collector of famous handshakes, to investigate the deaths of three women in three weeks of three different Lesbrouf stores in Paris. The women were all murdered by a shoemaker's awl to the brain via the nape of the neck. The notoriety is killing Lesbrouf's business.

Sana and his band of two, Pinaud and Berurier, stake out the fourth store, where they watch the female clientele undress on the monitor of the surveillance camera trained on the fitting rooms. The Gargantuan Béru, disguised as a salesgirl, has just "put it to" a customer in the fitting room, to everyone's amusement, when a fourth victim, a real salesgirl, is discovered dead behind a clothes rack.

After the three have been fired from the force for their misconduct, Marie-Marie, the love of Sana's life, calls to announce that she is marrying a mathematician. The hero, destroyed, makes a date with her to meet the lucky man. They end up running off together and leaving the fiancé to figure it out on his own.

The following morning, the ex-flics meet at San Antonio's to commiserate together and make plans. They are interrupted by Mme Lesbrouf, who wants them to continue the investigation privately, at her expense. She claims to know that the man behind the murders is her own husband; it is simply a matter of proving it.

The next ring at the door is that of the President of the Republic, who has a delicate mission for San Antonio in Ireland as an independent agent. He pseudonames him "Henri Deveau," after his mother's culinary skills. Ris de veau are calf sweetbreads in French.

Leaving the Lesbroufs to his colleagues, San-A. flies off to Ireland, where he immediately tries to make it with the Eurocar girl and succeeds in arranging a rendez-vous for later. He installs himself in the Shelbourne, goes down to the hotel bar for a drink, and almost seduces a glamorous blonde who turns out to be the wife of three days of an old friend, Larry Golhade, an American journalist, who unexpectedly joins them and breaks up the interlude.

Later that same evening, in San Antonio's hotel room with the car rental girl, they are joined by Larry's wife for sex à trois. The two women are shot in full coitus by an unseen gunman. Sana plants their bodies in Larry's room and, in the meantime, proceeds to investigate the President's crime, which revolves around politically incriminating love letters in the hands of a former actress run to fat since the Resistance.

In a typical passage, describing his arrival unprepared at an impasse, by appointment allegedly with his friend Larry, whose dead body turns up in the next scene, San Antonio speculates: "If I could have foreseen that the 'Public Swimming Baths' were no more than a pile of bricks and overturned bathtubs, I would have come equipped with a flashlight." A pretty elementary precaution for a detective hero if he were not sure of being able to write himself out of the dilemma.

He continues to stumble over bodies and debris to the conclusion, which is also the solution. The reader can feel assured that he does not know whodunit, or even exactly what was done, a second before San Antonio. "All the cases the Old Man's ever put me on to have been solved," he boasts in From A to Z (translated by Hugh Campbell). "They've all had a storybook ending and not once have I ever had the impression of uncovering some important hidden mystery."

San Antonio has at last arrived where his predecessors were not even sure that they were going. He has resolved the duality-duplicity, even — of the French detective hero divided against himself. For the author, narrator, detective, the solving of a crime was its telling. He was "the illustrious San Antonio ... the flic who solves the problems before they're posed" because his words were his deeds.

With Sana, detection has strayed as far from deduction as even the French could take it. From its origin, the roman policier, derived from Vidocq, the cop who would be author and whose greatest impact was on fiction, zigzagged past the analytical mystery school of foregone conclusions. Its policemen heroes, Vidocq's progeny — Lecoq, Lupin, Maigret — rather than work backward deductively, instead plodded forward, making mysteries as they went, adding and dropping persona along the way. Sana's achievement has been to unmask the anti-method of the French detective as nothing less than the creative process itself. And, as the author who would be cop and hero of his own fiction concluded when excusing his bad manner of ripping out a needed page from an Irish telephone book: "Either you're French or you're not. Me, I am."

Translation of quotations from works in the original French are my own unless otherwise noted. —S. Dorff

Susan L. Dorff is a professor of French at Boston University and came to the mystery genre by way of the roman policier. She hopes this will remind mystery fans that Poe never set foot in France.

1. H. Douglas Thompson, Masters of Mystery (New York: Dover, 1978), pp. 92-93.
2. Fenton Bresler, The Mystery of Georges Simenon (New York: Beaufort Books, 1983), p. 2.
3. Marcel Aymé in the Preface to Simenon's Le Chien jaune (Paris: Presses Pocket, 1976), p. 9.
4. Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1984), p. 364.
5. Bresler, p.223.
6. Boileau-Narcejac, Le roman policier (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982), p. 118.
7. These plots refer to San Antonio met le paquet, San Antonio chez les Macs, and From A to Z (the only San Antonio which I have stumbled across in English), respectively.

Boileau-Narcejac. Le roman policier. Paris: Payot, 1964.
Edwards, Samuel. The Vidocq Dossier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
Vidocq, François Eugene. Histoire de Vidocq, écrite d'après lui-même par M. Froment du Cabinet particulier du Préfet 1829. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1967.

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