Friday, December 11, 2020

Émile Gaboriau's proto-mystery Corde au cou - "What would a policeman be who did not know how to disguise himself"

“The great Gaboriau said, didn’t he? – ‘always suspect that which seems probable, and begin by believing what seems incredible.’”

“If he said that, the great Gaboriau must have been a half-wit.  I’ve never heard such a cheap, fantastic paradox.”

Here we eavesdrop on the detective and his wife discussing a case in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die (1938, Ch. 10 of the last section), and what strikes me is that “Blake” assumed that his Golden Age English detective novel readers could more or less identify Émile Gaboriau, one of the precursors of the detective novel.  Or maybe they could not; maybe this was an extremely private joke of “Blake’s.”

In the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), Watson brings up Gaboriau, only to have Holmes dismiss his most famous detective, M. Lecoq, as a “’miserable bungler…  That book made me positively ill.’”

For some reason I recently read a Gaboriau novel, Corde au cou (Rope around the Throat, 1873), a 500-pager* that does not feature Lecoq (although he is mentioned), but another detective, M. Goudar, who does not appear until page 300 or so.  My first glimpse of him is on a ladder, where “he was covering his superb trellised chasselas grapes in horsehair sacks” (303, translations all mine).  The last line of the novel, after wrapping up everyone else’s story: “And Goudar, nursery gardener, sells the most beautiful peaches in Paris.”

Goudar is also a master of disguise: “’What would a policeman be who did not know how to disguise himself,’ he interrupted” (356).

I am just saying that some of this should look awfully familiar to readers of a certain era of English detective fiction.  Still, no detective until page 300; this is not itself exactly a detective novel (although come to think of it that Blake novel does not introduce the detective until the 50% mark).

What else is in Corde au cou?  How about some plot:

A count is shot, seriously injured, and his farm is burned.  Two men die fighting the fire.  A neighboring nobleman, Jacques de Boiscoran is implicated by a range of evidence, and he refuses to defend himself.  What is he hiding; who is he protecting?  Lawyers do the detecting for a while, first the prosecutor and then the defense attorney (I am substituting the equivalent American roles).  Corde au cou  is more like a “judicial novel,” with lots of lawyers and courtroom scenes.  The defense attorney discovers that his client, Boiscoran, has for many years had a love affair with his neighbor the countess, but has recently dumped her to marry someone else.  So now we have many motives, both for Boiscoran to attack her husband, and for the vengeful countess to frame her former lover.  All right, there’s a tangle.

The tension of the story, though, is not really in the crime but the dissonance between the archaic honor culture of the nobility and the more sordid realities of modern France.  Why does Boiscoran want to protect the countess’s “reputation”?  He is not, and never was, a courtly knight.

Jean-Bernard Pouy, in Une brève histoire du roman noir (A Brief History of the Crime Novel, 2009) writes that Gaboriau “moved away, little by little, from the ‘judicial novel,’ throwing Lecoq, his main character, into increasingly precise and vengeful adventures in the context of the corrupt society of the Second Empire,” and he singles out Corde au cou and Gaboriau’s next novel.  Pouy’s line does not exactly describe Corde au cou, which lacks Lecoq and overlaps the Second Empire and the Third Republic (the events of 1870 are a hinge in the story), but the point about corruption is right.  The strange thing is that the nobility, the leaders, are honorable and if anything too obsessed with integrity, while literally everyone else is corrupt, almost openly for sale.  The social critique is not what I would call democratic.  The critique, the tension, is built into the form of the novel, which alternates between a Romantic mode and a Realist mode, Chateaubriand characters and Balzac characters.  As is the case with many later detective novels, the social novel has more meaning than the crime novel.

I am not saying that Corde au cou is The Moonstone or something, not by any means.  There were long stretches where I was dying for an interesting sentence (the French was not too hard, though).  But there is an interesting story about the interaction between French and English detective fiction that I would like to understand better.  If only Gaboriau’s novels weren’t so long.

* Page references are to the 1874 edition, available from The Bibliothèque nationale de France.



  1. Interesting! I've never tried Gaboriau, much less in French. There are four of them (though not this) on the Haycroft Queen list. I assume he was once better known to English readers, but now I assume he's pretty much just a name, if that. At least he is for me.

  2. Haycraft seems to prefer the earlier Gaboriau; Pouy the later. For what that's worth. I checked to see if Corde au cou is in print in French (of course it is), but I did not check the English status.

    The Haycraft Queen list has quite a bit more early fiction studd, Leroux and so on.

  3. I read some Gaboriau decades ago, in English. I remember liking it at the time, but then I did tend to absorb books like a sponge at that point in my life. I'd like to give him another go sometime.

  4. I should, in some sense, read one of the Lecoq novels, I suppose the first, for comparison.

    I see that the English Gaboriau has been swamped by e-books of public domain translations. Not a good situation. In France, Gaboriau has something like ten novels in print in decent editions.

  5. i read this some years back... i disliked it because it was long and boring and i liked it because it was long... and boring...

  6. It is easy to see how a later writer, like Doyle or Leroux, could think "What if we kept the detective part and just left out the boring part?" Yes, try that, please.

  7. I've been so focused on more recent detectives/mysteries, that I've neglected any interest I once had in the "origin stories." I actually have Gaboriau on my list to try out, someday. Your post did send me down a mini-rabbit hole and I found an Ohio public library I could, it looks like, request some from (we're fortunate to have a request system that extends beyond our regional libraries)--but they appear to be early translations, so it would seem he's been largely forgotten in English. Pity I don't read French...

  8. How nice that some library has some actual books by Gaboriau. But that fits my sense, that he has not been translated or even in print for a while.

    At some point I will allow myself to read French-in-English again; maybe I will blow through a Gaboriau or two then. They'll fly by.