BOOKS JULY 17, 1935
Vidocq: The Personal Memoirs of the First Great Detective, edited and translated by Edwin Gile Rich. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 445 pages. $3.
This condensed version of the famous detective’s memoirs starts off very well as an amusing picaresque story. Soon, however, it becomes the somber and rather dreary tale of Vidocq’s escapes while he was one of the hunted, and of his captures when he turned hunter himself. Apparently Vidocq cared more for the truthfulness of his story than for any possible adornments. But notwithstanding their inferior literary worth, these memoirs have aspecial interest for students of literature: they are the original source of much criminal and detective fiction. Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean is obviously modeled on Vidocq, whose efforts to free himself from the clinches of the law and lead an honest life were again and again frustrated until he offered his services to the police. Balzac’s Vautrin also contains elements derived from Vidocq, though his fierce, concentrated energy is peculiar to his creator. Poe, Gaboriau, Dickens and Conan Doyle are all said to have drawn upon the memoirs.
Some of Vidocq’s remarks are quite surprising for a police agent; but then we must recall that he turned police agent out of necessity, not from choice. “Prisons are schools” he observes at one point—schools in which criminals perfect their art and from which they emerge more dangerous to the society that has bred, trained and tortured them. In the light of this statement, it is all the more remarkable that, after he had resigned from the police, he opened a paper mill in which all the employees were ex-convicts who had found it impossible to earn an honest living because of the prejudice against them. The venture, so creditable to Vidocq’s heart, failed. He also observes on one occasion that though “the thieves and robbers were frightened for a brief moment by several arrests I made one after another, they were not slow to reappear in greater numbers, and perhaps more audacious than ever.”
He does not clearly express it, but in this sentence he stumbles upon the profound truth that society produces crime and criminals just as it produces wheat and iron, trade and wars. That it also produces them in definite amounts, in accordance with the price of bread and other like indexes, was established, at about the time of the appearance of the memoirs, by Quetelet, in his day recognized as the foremost statistician in Europe. In our day and country no one, perhaps, has more clearly appreciated the fact that crime is a function of the social order than Clarence Darrow, who in an address to the inmates of the Cook County jail told them that their being behind the bars, instead of walking free outside, was a matter of pure accident. But of course it is no accident that those behind the bars come in preponderant numbers from among the poor, just as it is no accident that the rate of mortality among the poor is higher than among the well-to-do. It was reserved for Lombroso and his school to discover a criminal type with distinct physical traits—as though there were no criminals among the rich, and as though crime were an immutable fact of nature and not a social concept that changes with the changes in society.
But of course, observations of a criminological order are not what has attracted so many writers of crime and detective stories to the memoirs; they are interested mostly by the special qualities of Vidocq’s mind. There is nothing of the grandiose in his career, as there was, for example, in that of the notorious Aseff. The crimes with which Vidocq was charged, and for which he suffered grievously in many vile prisons, were of the petty sort; and when he turned police agent, he was set to watch over ordinary crooks thieves and murderers. It is not so much what he does that is engrossing; it is rather the ingenuity and tireless will that was behind all his adventures—and these are the very stuff out of which criminal and detective fiction is made.
Herman Simpson was formerly an editor of The New York Daily Call, the Socialist daily which was discontinued several years ago.
This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.