(MARIE-FRANÇOIS) GORON &ÉMILE GAUTIER – Spawn of the Penitentiary, aka Fleur de Bagne. Black Coat Press (French Mystery Book 4). Paperback / Kindle edition, 2013. First published as a serial (feuilleton) in the Parisian newspaper Le Journal, 1901. Adapted and with an introduction by Brian Stableford.

   The feuilleton, or newspaper serial, remained the dominant form of French popular literature from the heyday of Alexandre Dumas peré well into the early 20th Century, and continued into WW II and beyond in some cases. Some of the great works of French literature were written for this format, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (one of the most influential novels ever written imitated all over Europe), but by far most such serial fiction was consumed and forgotten however influential.

   Paul Feval with his Jean Diable and Les Habits Noir pioneered the crime novel (his Gregory Temple the first Scotland Yard detective in popular fiction); nobleman turned pulpster Ponson du Terraill crated the rogue turned hero Rocambole whose very name came to represent a kind of popular tale. Rocambolesque; Jean de la Hire’s Nyctalope is literature’s first true superhero; and of course there were the adventures of Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin and Gaston Leroux’s (Phantom of the Opera) various heroes. D’Artagnan, Lagrdarie (Le Bossu), Cyrano, Jean Valjean, Quasimodo, Edmund Dantes, Eric the Phantom, and Prince Rodolphe are merely a few of the characters to wander through these fictions.

   Spawn of the Penitentiary is in many ways a typical such adventure, a complex series of chases, twists, victories, defeats, and adventures, not always developed fully as writers changed plots and dropped sub plots and characters as readers reacted to weekly installments. Imagine Star Wars if George Lucas instead of planning it out in advance had plotted it on the run filming each weeks installment based on his fan bases likes and dislikes.

   So while there is much to admire about Spawn of the Penitentiary it is in many ways the most basic kind of pulp fiction with barely drawn characters and frequent false trails that lead the reader nowhere, something acknowledged by translator and adapter, SF and Horror novelist and anthologist Brian Stableford (I say adaptation because Stableford has not just translated this and other books in Black Coat Press series, but edited and adapted them to better entertain modern audiences where possible, trying to at least make names uniform throughout a series).

   The plot here involves master criminal Gaston Rouzen whose plans will ultimately pit him against both Monsieur Caredac of the Sûreté, but also against a group of anarchists Rouzen attempts to use for his own purposes and betrays to his own needs.

   Frankly whenever Rouzen’s plans are revealed they prove to be pretty lame usually, he’s a prototype of the super criminal and he’s no Dr. Fu Manchu, Carl Peterson, or Dr. Nikola. Moriarity would probably drown him. As super villains go he sometimes resembles Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle more than Ernst Stavro Blofied.

   Far more interesting than its villain is the book’s attempt to show the impact on both criminal and police of the burgeoning technology of the early 20th Century. Even that is primitive, but it is there.

   But to be brutally honest for anyone not interested in the history of the crime novel or in French serial fiction the most fascinating part of this book are its authors.

   For reasons that will become obvious shortly, I will deal with Emile Gautier first.

   Emile Gautier was a lawyer, but he was also an Anarchist. Before you imagine a man in a black cloak and slouch hat running around with a lighted bomb or a hairy faced radical I should point out that Anarchy was an actual political movement in late 19th and early 20th Century Europe and not merely conspirators meeting and plotting in cellars.

   Gautier was one of its brightest lights, but as you might expect, his politics made him unpopular with the French government. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to ten years hard labor on Devil’s Island.

   He would have served those ten years in that hellish prison if not for an older friend from his childhood, his future writing partner Marie-François Goron, and Goron was in good position to help him receive a pardon.

   Marie-François Goron was head of the Sûreté from 1887-94, one of the most famous heads of that body in its history, perhaps only behind its first leader, Eugene Vidoq. The Anarchist and convicted felon (political or not) teamed with the Policeman, and not just any policeman, has to be one of the oddest writing teams of all time.

   The Black Coat Press edition has a lovely cover and a fine introduction by Brian Stableford (I will admit to some prejudice as they are my publisher and Jean-Marc Lofficier its publisher my editor and a friend). It is not for everyone, but lovers of pulp fiction, historians of the crime novel, and for anyone interested in the course of popular literature around the world it is a fascinating read.

   Today when most popular literature is celebrated, written about, and collected by devoted fan bases it is fascinating to see how disposable our past entertainment once was, swashbucklers, heroes, tragedy, soap opera, fantastic journeys, dreams and nightmares on faded newsprint, a thrill or a tear a week, imagination and wonder for pennies.

   The uncommon art of the common man.