Saturday, May 21, 2011

Émile Gaboriau – ‘Monsieur Lecoq’

A book which made Sherlock Holmes ‘positively ill’? Let’s see:
Quick in his motions, and understanding how to maneuvre the lantern in accordance with his wishes, the young police agent explored the surroundings in a very short space of time. A bloodhound in pursuit of his prey would have been less alert, less discerning, less agile. He came and went, now turning, now pausing, now retreating, now hurrying on again without any apparent reason; he scrutinized, he questioned every surrounding object: the ground, the logs of wood, the blocks of stone, in a word, nothing escaped his glance. For a moment he would remain standing, then fall upon his knees, and at times lie flat upon his stomach with his face so near the ground that his breath must have melted the snow. He had drawn a tape-line from his pocket, and using it with a carpenter’s dexterity, he measured, measured, and measured.
Odd though it is to think of Holmes settling down to a good read, it is obvious that he would recognise himself in this. He may also have traced the source of his own axiom,
when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth
to Lecoq’s more flamboyant
Always suspect that which seems probable; and begin by believing what appears incredible.
Improbable though it seems, he suspects that he is not a real person at all, but a character whose author has borrowed liberally from this earlier book, and given him an awareness of it. Enough to make any character queasy. So he lashes out, labelling Lecoq a ‘miserable bungler’, implying that the tenacious energy he brings to bear over months of detective work is largely wasted. ‘The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours.’

It turns out that this is fair criticism. In the early chapters, Lecoq is brilliant, reconstructing the events which led up to the triple murder in Widow Chupin’s tavern: two men shot dead, and a third with a fatal wound to his neck; an armed man found barricading the way to the back exit with a table. The police burst in, catching him red handed. Lecoq steals around to the back and cuts off his escape, and the man exclaims, ‘Lost! It is the Prussians who are coming!’ This is the first of Lecoq’s clues, and one of many which lead him to suspect that the prisoner is hiding his position in society, a crucial point in establishing his crime as murder (he claims self defence; Lecoq needs to establish some political motive). Once the man, May, has been taken away, Lecoq and his simple but loyal assistant Father Absinthe stay behind overnight to look for further clues. They follow two sets of footprints from the back door over the snow covered ground, Lecoq demonstrating that the purpose of May’s barricade was to cover the escape of two women, whose movements he is able to describe with uncanny accuracy. The prints of a male accomplice are also identified, and the height of this man, and the colour of his coat, emerge from the smallest of clues.

But Lecoq is not free, as Holmes is, from the procedures of justice. When it begins to rain, he frantically looks about for a method of preserving the footprints in the snow, eventually scraping some plaster from a wall and fashioning moulds from boards and boxes. Holmes would not have bothered with this, nor with the long interrogation to which May is submitted, and during which he is unhelpfully kept informed of the police’s suspicions by an insider (Lecoq suspects his jealous boss, Gevrol), allowing him to avoid all the traps set for him. The internal politics of the Palais de Justice and the Prefecture de Police come ever more to the fore, and slowly but surely the case which had started so promisingly gets bogged down in bureaucracy and deliberate obfuscation. In this, it reminded me of the recently screened third series of French cop / law TV drama Spiral: for both stories, the identity, character and connections of the all-powerful investigating magistrate are the most important feature of an investigation. It’s remarkable that the such similar stories can be told about 1869 and 2010. M. Segmuller is on Lecoq’s side, but their position becomes more untenable the longer the interrogation goes on. Lecoq is sure that May can’t be who he says he is, a wandering circus showman, because such a man would not have had the education necessary to make the remark, ‘It is the Prussians who are coming!’ (a reference to Waterloo, apparently). It is a weak argument, which smacks of snobbery.

In increasing desperation, Lecoq first spies on May from a cavity above his prison cell, then allows him to escape and spends days doggedly tailing him, Father Absinthe in tow, chalking walls when they get separated. Both men wear ridiculous disguises, and take great delight in trying them out on their unsuspecting colleagues. Maybe the twists and turns do get a bit much, but the revelation of the truth is beautifully managed, and you realise the clue was there all along. It comes, at last, from a Mycroft Holmes-like figure, Tabaret, laid up in bed with gout, able to pick out the true explanation from Lecoq’s narrative without getting up. Despite the similarities, this is a different kind of story telling to Conan Doyle’s, one in which the detective is as much involved in the whirlwind of doubt as the reader, and follows up every false trail, energetically, exhaustively, as though it were the true one.

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