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Sunday, 29 June 2008

Written in granite: Le monstre!

I've got a theory about crime fiction. If we assume, for the sake of argument only, that the genre as such can trace its roots back to Edgar Allen Poe's three stories about C. Auguste Dupin, then in some ways each of those three stories was taken as the model for the development of the genre in the first three countries to adopt it with real vim. The genre's first superstar, who still towers over it a century or so on, was created by a Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle and went by the name of Sherlock Holmes. You may have heard of him. He is based on the deduction and logic used in the final Dupin story, The Purloined Letter – the idea that the best place to hide something is in full view is so Holmesian it's almost a shock to find out that it isn't. You can almost imagine it alongside "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time", "once you have eliminated the impossible", etc. And British crime writing developed from there. America, on the other hand, went down the more realistic road signposted by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, a story based upon an actual murder mystery which had shocked New York, except that Poe transposed it to Paris.

And then there's French crime fiction. If the Americans saw Marie R and thought "hey, we recognise that story from real life! This is real, I know those mean streets, now if we could only find a man who is not himself mean..." and hey presto, Philip Marlow (OK, not hey presto, it took the best part of a century but you get my drift) and if the British admired the cool, dispassionate reasoning, ability to see past red herrings and the sheer cleverness at work in Letter then the French took one look at The Murders In The Rue Morgue and went: "woooooahhhhhhhhh! An enormous ape? Non, mais c'est dingue...Wow! What, really? An enormous APE is the murderer? No, no, no, we don't want psychological insight, we don't want to know about the traumas that led to the murders, we want more murders committed as grotesquely as possible! Oh but can someone check the locks on the cages at our zoos, please?" And who's to say they were wrong. Not me, for one.

So, while in English Sherlock Holmes ruled the consulting rooms for much of the early twentieth century, in France things were very different. And absolutely wonderful. Early 20th century French crime is among my favourite genres. In some ways it's not really crime, it's... I don't know, really, it mixes so many different things together. It most certainly picks up on the 19th century "penny dreadful" or "sensation stories" or whatever you care to call them, but it also picks up on Dumas' trick of turning history into thrilling, swashbuckling plots, incorporating plenty of Gothic elements, the interest in spiritualism of the day... Hell, it's got so many elements it can be almost bewildering, however it's always about telling an exciting story at a pace which never lets up and keeps you turning the page.

There are a number of great exponents. Outside France Gaston Leroux is known almost exclusively for The Phantom Of The Opera. Except that nobody actually knows his book, only the film, musical, etc. However Leroux also created the first, and very probably the best locked-room mystery, usually translated as The Mystery Of The Yellow Room. It is the first novel featuring his young reporter hero Rouletabille and it is a wonderful novel. Better still there are a number of translations including a fairly recent one. I must confess I've only ever read it in French so I can't comment on the quality of the translations but there's got to be at least one good one out there, I'm sure. Then there's a second Rouletabille also available in English called The Perfume Of The Lady In Black, which I read many years ago and enjoyed enormously. Then there were a number more, taking Rouletabille to Russia, amongst other places.

We should also mention the Fantômas series. It's interesting that a lot of these French books are interested in the villain as much as, if not more than the heroes. The eponymous character is an almost supernatural monster (he is referred to frequently as a monster), the first book, Fantômas, starts with him about to go to the guillotine for murder and having someone else executed in his place and then ramps the thrills up from there. The heroes are the wily old policeman Juve and another young reporter Jérôme Fandor. I don't think that it's any coincidence that Boris Akunin chose to give his hero the name Erast Fandorin in the really rather wonderful series of books set in late 19th century Russia currently being published in translation. Unusually the Fantômas books were written by two men, Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre.

However my own personal favourite is the Arsène Lupin series by Maurice Leblanc. As with so many great things, it started off as something else, pastiche, really, and came alive in its creator's hands. Conan Doyle's brother-in-law E.W. Hornung's Raffles series had been a huge hit, setting up the crime anti-hero who is still a hero. Leblanc decided to have a go at creating a French equivalent and Lupin was born. There's no attempt to hide the pastiche, so much so that at the end of the first volume of short stories, Arsène Lupin, gentleman cambrioleur, a character whose name had to be cleverly inverted so that nobody would recognise it on legal grounds makes his appearance, arriving just too late to lock horns with Lupin. In the second book in the series the two men do meet and do battle. It's cunningly entitled Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès. The early stories are great fun, but with the next book Leblanc found he had something quite different coming into being. From this point on Lupin focuses far less on crime, or at least on committing it himself, except incidentally, and starts meddling with French and European history. By 814, one of the finest novels in the sequence, he's managing to get Alsace and Lorraine (then in German hands) restored to France by the Kaiser even while he's locked up in the Santé prison in Paris. Oh and if I remember rightly he's also running the Paris police force (echoing the real story of Vidocq, the criminal turned police chief upon which Balzac had based Vautrin in several of his Comédie Humaine novels). There aren't any mean streets here and I don't think many people would see this as a reflection of real life. What it is, though, is the most tremendous fun. And it also manages to achieve something more, it takes on a kind of grandeur, the sheer scale of it. And a real poetry, a sense of past and present combining... The first book of Lupin stories is currently available in the Penguin Classics series. I do hope they'll continue and publish more of the series, especially the super sequence of The Hollow Needle, 814, The Crystal Stopper and The Confessions of Arsène Lupin. Again, I've not read the translations, and I suppose there probably is something peculiarly French about this whole genre... But then again perhaps not, because I can detect echoes of it in modern authors from various countries. I've already mentioned Boris Akunin's excellent Erast Fandorin series which began with The Winter Queen and the first half a dozen or so of which are now available in English (and here I have only read the translations as I don't speak Russian, unfortunately) and are highly recommended. But, closer to home, there are also things such as our very own Christopher Fowler's wonderful Bryant and May series, the sixth (and apparently final, although I do hope not) volume of which, The Victoria Vanishes, is due out tomorrow and of which I shall be doing my best to get a copy immediately as I've absolutely loved the previous five. Interestingly Fowler comes from a horror background, and there's something more than a little Gothic about the plots of these stories. However they remind me more than anything of the improbabilities and sheer imagination of Fantômas, Lupin and Rouletabille. More please!

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