He is a gentleman of leisure and strange reticence. He loves obscure volumes and he often busies himself with puzzles, cryptograms and other enigmas. More importantly, his is a large and intimidating intellect with an unbelievable ability to categorize a person based upon a single glance. In short, he is the archetypal detective, and his constant companion and biographer can attest to it.
No, this is not Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Debuting in 1841 with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (which is generally believed to be the world’s first true piece of detective fiction), C. Auguste Dupin and his anonymous narrator laid the groundwork for detective fiction even before the word “detective” had been coined. Calling them “tales of ratiocination,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote only three stories involving Dupin: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1842’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and 1844’s “The Purloined Letter.” Amazingly, each one of these tales provided a blueprint for later mystery sub-genres: the Gothic and gruesome murder mystery (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), the true-crime story (“The Mystery of Marie Roget,” which represents Poe’s thesis concerning the real-life murder of Mary Rogers) and the drawingroom blackmail scheme (“The Purloined Letter”). Not bad for a hard-drinking eccentric and a failed soldier.
When “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published, Poe was better known throughout the East Coast as a biting literary critic and an erratic writer of macabre stories. Essentially a working journalist, Poe created the detective story as a literary chess game of sorts, with Dupin as the master strategist. This central tenet of cerebral gamesmanship would become incredibly important in the later development of the detective story, especially the British variety. In fact, without Poe’s Dupin stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a struggling doctor in the south of England who was an avid fan of Poe, would have never had a model for his own fictional detective — one who even goes so far as to mention Dupin during his very first appearance in A Study in Scarlet:
Sherlock rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”
In this way, Holmes both acknowledges his predecessor and distances himself from him. While this might seem rather arrogant, Holmes had an inspiration for his actions: Dupin himself. Unlike Holmes, in Dupin’s first appearance, the detective does not call out a fictional rival but a real one. His target is named Vidocq, and he was the most famous detective of the age. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin describes Vidocq as “a good guesser, and a persevering man. But, without educated thought, he erred continually by the very intensity of his investigations." In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin does not err in his conclusions, and in the end, the startling murders are solved thanks to his genius.
But the question remains: Who was Vidocq? Eugene Vidocq, like Dupin, was a Frenchman with a rather mysterious background. More than likely born in the northern city of Arras in 1775, Vidocq lived and breathed during some of France’s most turbulent days. He saw the French Revolution, fought against the Prussians at Valmy and served under Napoleon, the restored Bourbon monarchy and even the Second Republic. Even though he spent the majority of his early life as a conman and a thief, Vidocq could lay claim to being the founder of France’s civil police force, the Surete Nationale, and being Europe’s first private detective.
When “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published, the name Vidocq — who was still alive and working — had the same cultural currency as Sherlock Holmes does today. Vidocq meant detective not only because of Vidocq’s actual exploits, but also because of his literary ones. Besides being the first European detective of note, Vidocq was also the first master detective to record his triumphs for posterity. Vidocq’s memoirs, which were published in 1828 with the help of his friends Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, are arguably the world’s first detective literature.
In today’s world, Vidocq’s primary method of criminal detection seems built upon a precarious premise: A former criminal himself, Vidocq believed that ex-cons made the best detectives, therefore the Surete’s first incarnation was staffed with the very type of people that it would soon be arresting. And even after Vidocq’s forced retirement from the national police (his unpopularity grew after the final defeat of Napoleon) and the opening of his private agency, Le bureau des renseignements (The Office of Information), Vidocq continued to rely on former criminals as both informants and surveillance specialists.
Of course none of this takes away from the brilliant detective abilities of Vidocq himself — a near mythic personality of the early 19th century, who has faded away with the onslaught of time. Besides a few dabblers and enthusiasts (see Michael Capuzzo’s The Murder Room), Vidocq is not thought of too much anymore. That’s a shame, for without him Poe would have lacked a muse. And without Poe’s Dupin, detective fiction would never have gotten off the ground in France, America, Great Britain or beyond.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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