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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime

By: Francois Eugene Vidocq

Publisher: Nabat Books; Nabat ed. edition (May 1st, 2003) (originally published 1871)

Softcover 382 pages

Finished 4/1/2017

Amazon Listing 



          “It is rarely that a convict escapes from prison with the intention of reforming; most often he proposes to gain the capital to practice the fatal skill which he has been able to acquire in the convict prisons, which, as are most of the prisons, are schools where they are perfected in the art of appropriating someone else’s goods. Nearly all the great robbers have become experts only after a more or less long sojourn in the galleys.”
Portrait of Francois Eugene Vidocq 
          An abridged version of the original written in French in 1832, it is actually the first of four novels by the author. The others being Thieves: A Psysiology of their Customs and Habits; The True Mysteries of Paris; and The Rural Bandits of the North.
1946 film based off the Memoirs
          Seemingly forgotten the name of Vidocq carried great weight in post-revolutionary France and England. In a sense, he was the original police detective and inspired the entire genre of fiction. Hugo, who was aquainted with them man, took him as inspiration for both Jan Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, the first character being on Vidocq the criminal, and the later when he switched teams. Balzac’s Valtean is openly based on the man, as is Gaboriau’s Lecoq. Charles Dickens consulted with him when writing Great Expectations. Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle were both influenced by the memoirs when creating their famous detectives and the man is mentioned by name in Moby Dick.
         Several films have been based off of his memoirs. The first was in 1939 a French production simply called Vidocq, which I cannot find a copy of. Then in 1946 A Scandal in Paris, starring George Sanders, was made. It took some wild liberties with the text, but is still a passable film from the time. Vidocq in 2001, starring Gérard Depardieu, is loosely based on several of cases the author describes in his memoirs. In addition there was a short lived French TV Series from 1967 based around the character, it lasted only 13 episodes. And a further  French TV movie called Vidocq was made in 2010.
          Some notable real life lawmen took inspiration and copied techniques described by Vidocq in the Memoirs. Both Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous (or infamous, depending on your political bent) Pinkerton Detective Agency, and J. Edgar Hoover of FBI fame, praised the work and read it religiously.
2001 film based off of the Memoirs
          He refers to himself as the Master of Crime, I assume due to his ability to root out criminals, as his career as a felon seems to mostly consist of womanizing, petty thievery, drunken brawls, desertion of duty, and escapes from prison- rather than big scores. And while he did break out of a number of prisons, he kept getting caught.
          The book doesn’t get interesting until halfway through when he begins his vocation as a professional snitch (or police spy, as he calls it). Already familiar with French criminal underworld and its argot, he launched into his he job with a hungry appetite. Soon he became too well known to operate effectively, so he began to master the art of disguise and affecting different accents. This lead him to eventually be inducted into the police as an inspector and then be given his own semi-autonomous squad. There he help to pioneer or champion various techniques to cut down on counterfeiting (a large problem at the time), crime scene investigations, and rudimentary ballistic testing.
          His success brought on many enemies both inside the police and out. Jealousy of his achievements caused many on his side of the fence to view him as a threat. At least according to him. In his writing he doesn’t fail at every opportunity to demonstrate or comment on his own brilliance and acumen. So I have no doubt that this arrogance helped to garner him a vast number of professional detractors.
From The Vidocq Society
          Several critics have attacked them, claiming that they were “spurious”, or at least exaggerated, that he had them ghost written, and so on. But I have to point out here that most of the cases he discusses as a police detective were well known at the time and the facts could easy be check up on, even if now they have wallowed into obscurity. And in a sense the accuracy of the memoirs is unimportant. Like those who argue about the historical existence of King Arthur, the stories themselves have shaped our culture much more than any truth could have. Look at the list above again and see what it inspired, then think on how much else was inspired by those works and you will see, exaggerated or not, the Memoirs of Vidocq are extremely culturally valuable.

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