Fri 29 Apr 2011
by Edward D. Hoch
ÉMILE GABORIAU – Monsieur Lecoq. E. Dentu, Paris, 1868. Edited version published in the US: Dover, softcover, 1975.
Monsieur Lecoq, Gaboriau’s twelfth book and his fifth novel in which the French detective of the title appears, is today often considered his best and most readable book. Changing reading habits, plus indifferent translations, have left the pioneer French mystery writer all but unread today, but he deserves a place in any survey of classic detective fiction.
Lecoq, introduced in his first book as a secondary character, was a minor Sûreté detective with a shady past somewhat like the real-life Vidocq. But he soon takes center stage in the Gaboriau novels, and in Monsieur Lecoq he investigates a triple murder in a poor section of Paris.
The killer, apprehended at the scene, appears to be a petty criminal who calls himself May, but Lecoq suspects he might really have another identity. The duel of wits between the two men extends through the first volume of the novel.
The second volume, sometimes published separately as The Honor of the Name, is really a separate and inferior historical novel set around the year 1815, with Lecoq and the evasive villain only reappearing in the final twenty-two pages.
Though there have been numerous British and American editions of the novel, the recent Dover edition cited above (skillfully edited and introduced by E. F. Bleiler) is the first to eliminate the extraneous historical novel and jump at once from the end of volume one to the important final pages of volume two.
Gaboriau’s books are not without their weaknesses, and they often suffer from cardboard characterization and inconsistencies. Their strengths lie in plotting and background. They are not exactly the books we think of as detective novels today, but enough elements are present to argue effectively that Gaboriau deserves his title as the father of the detective novel.
Lecoq first appears as a secondary character in The Widow Lerouge (1866), but stars in his next two cases, The Mystery of Orcival (1867) and File No. 113 (1967). He also makes a brief appearance in The Slaves of Paris (1868), but this is more a crime novel than a detective story.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.