The father of crime

Frances Trollope’s Hargrave came to my attention when I was researching the roots of modern crime and detective fiction and, as it turned out, rightly so; but while that novel was singled out for its criminal content, there are further indications that several of Trollope’s novels contain crime subplots—and, perhaps more importantly in context of this historical study, that her novels were influential upon other writers who would play a part in the development of this branch of fiction. As the 19th century wore on, Trollope’s novels fell out of favour in England, where her Regency outspokenness offended Victorian sensibilities; but that they continued to be embraced in France is evident from the fact that when the next important work in the evolution of the detective story appeared, its author used the pseudonym Sir Françis Trolopp.

Paul Henri Corentin Féval (also known as Paul Féval père) is a pivotal figure in 19th century crime writing: literally pivotal, as he was the first to seize upon and expand the format initiated by Eugène Sue in his Les Mystères de Paris, and also – or so says the dogma; we shall investigate presently – the first to introduce into his sprawling crime stories the figure of the professional detective. Furthermore, some years later, after founding a magazine devoted to crime stories, Féval employed and collaborated with Émile Gaboriau, who later wrote what is arguably the first modern detective series, with his stories featuring police detective Monsieur Lecoq.

Paul Féval was trained as a lawyer, but he soon gave up his legal career to become a writer; quickly gaining a reputation as the author of entertaining historical swashbucklers. In terms of his later career, his most important early work was Le Loup Blanc, published in 1843, the hero of which is a Zorro-esque figure who fights against injustice—and may be the earliest example of the crime-fighter with a double life and a secret identity. (He’s also an albino, because if there’s one thing Paul Féval believed in, it was piling it on.)

Féval’s breakthrough work, however, was 1844’s Les Mystères de Londres which, although a clear imitation of Eugène Sue’s crime drama, dropped the social criticism which was a major aspect of Sue’s work while adding several components to the mixture that would dictate the immediate future of crime writing, particularly in France. In this respect, Féval’s most important decision was to make his hero an anti-hero, the secret head of a criminal gang who is also a political plotter masterminding a scheme to bring about an English Revolution. Féval’s revenge-focused central character is recognised as an influence upon Alexandre Dumas père, whose The Count Of Monte Cristo appeared the following year. Subsequently, French crime writing would come to be dominated by narratives of criminal life, and stories of criminals evading the law, in a manner which clearly invited the reader to side with “the bad guys”. This form of writing climaxed with the creation by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre of the seminal figure of Fantômas.

Unfortunately, however, for those of us interested in the history of crime fiction but who don’t have French as a second language, Paul Féval was not the only writer for whom Eugène Sue’s complex crime drama became a model. In fact, over the next decade magazines and newspapers worldwide would almost drown in serial stories promising to reveal “The Mysteries Of— “…and a poor city you were if somebody didn’t want to unravel your mysteries.

In England, the person to make this form of writing his own was George William Macarthur Reynolds, a critical figure in the development of both crime fiction and horror fiction in England (about whom, we shall be hearing a great deal more in the future). In August 1844, just as Féval’s Les Mystères de Londres was coming to its conclusion in Le Courrier Français, a new weekly eight-page serial (a form of publication which Reynolds dominated, as we shall later see) appeared in England, bearing the title, The Mysteries Of London.

Féval was furious, rightly anticipating that this home-grown serial would supersede his own work. Content with their own story, English readers showed no interest in a foreign version of the same, with the result that, unlike Les Mystères de Paris, Les Mystères de Londres was not translated into English. Three years later, a translation of sorts did appear; and a year after that, another was published in America. The former is a significant abridgement; the latter seems to have been released in loose-leaf, paper-serial form only, never in book form, and no copies are available.

Thus, though Féval’s work has been regularly reissued in France, including as recently as 2015, there is currently no such thing as a full-length, English-language edition of Les Mystères de Londres. Therefore, all we can do is take a look at the 1847 translation by one “R. Stephenson”: a wholly inadequate version of the original, but the best available.

 
 

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6 Comments to “The father of crime”

  1. Ah, what fun I imagine we’d have if we were all fluent in French.

    • A lot of 19th century literature would have passages in French, with the assumption that anyone of any breeding would naturally speak French.
      Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot, would use a lot of French phrases, but they were usually just a few words, that were easily deciphered.

      • True, though literature of this nature was some of the first aimed to cross class barriers, so the need for a translation would have been recognised. I think Féval was right to conclude that Reynolds had spiked his guns as far as international recognition went.

      • Dorothy Sayers did that too. She once even wrote a short story where the vital clue was a mistake in French grammar.

  2. I would think if one were an albino, it would be very difficult to hide one’s secret identity. One would have to cover up a lot.

    • I was wondering about that too! 😀

      There was an English translation of Le Loup Blanc (a couple, in fact) but I will need to investigate availability and completeness.

      ETA: Well, well, well… The University of Queensland holds a copy of the 1849 translation of Le Loup Blanc (“The White Wolf; or, The Secret Brotherhood”), and it is marked as ‘loanable’, which I find hard to believe. No harm in requesting it and seeing what happens, though…

      (Come to think of it, it was UQ who loaned me the 1886 edition of Lady Lisle.)

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