Walking through Walls

Graham Robb

  • Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime
    AK Press, 370 pp, £14.00, July 2003, ISBN 1 902593 71 5

In June 1845, an odd assortment of faintly disconcerting objects was drawing large crowds to the Cosmorama in Regent Street. The exhibition catalogue was headed: ‘Vidocq, chef de la police de sûreté (detective force) de Paris, which was created by him, and which he directed for 29 years with extraordinary success’. For five shillings, visitors could inspect a collection of disguises worn by M. Vidocq ‘in discovering and arresting the criminals obnoxious to justice’, a small arsenal of ‘sanguinary weapons . . . taken from the perpetrators of crime’, and an array of manacles, fetters and lead-lined boots from which Vidocq had freed himself when, as the Times daintily put it, ‘he fell under the displeasure of the French government.’

The famous convict turned policeman had come to London shortly before his 70th birthday to find a publisher for his latest volume of memoirs and perhaps to open a branch of his private detective agency. Since his profitable Bureau des Renseignements had been closed by the Paris police (trumped-up charges of fraud and abduction had landed him in the Conciergerie prison for 11 months), he was also hoping to sell some of the objects that made up the rest of the exhibition: several dozen paintings of French battles and four thousand imitation tropical fruits that had recently come into his possession.

The main attraction was Vidocq himself. He modelled the disguises, drank with journalists and told tales of his life as a soldier, smuggler, thief, acrobat, quack doctor, convict, spy, policeman, factory-owner and private detective. Even in old age, he was a charismatic mixture of affability and intimidation. The Times described him as ‘a remarkably well-built man, of extraordinary muscular power, and exceedingly active’. ‘His countenance exhibits in a way not to be mistaken unflinching determination of character, strong powers of perception, and that bluffness which denotes animal courage.’ It was a well-judged review. The reporter from the Weekly Dispatch deemed the exhibition an insult to France and called for its immediate closure. Vidocq threatened to beat up the editor, the editor threatened legal action, and the resulting press coverage ensured that the exhibition continued into July.

Few people would have agreed with the Weekly Dispatch. However brutal his methods and however murky his involvement with the secret police of various regimes, Vidocq was, apparently, a romantic hero with a sense of civic duty. Not only had he managed to bring a touch of the ‘wild and wonderful’ to modern life, he had also, as his first English translator put it, ‘rendered Paris the safest residence in the world’.

Like most books on Vidocq, this new edition of his Memoirs – it reproduces the abridged translation by Edwin Gile Rich (1935) – presents him as the progenitor of a long line of fictional detectives, from Balzac’s Vautrin (‘le Vautrin’, a Picardy word for ‘wild boar’, was one of Vidocq’s nicknames) to Poe’s Dupin, Gaboriau’s Lecoq and Sherlock Holmes. However, this Master of Crime edition also casts him in a new role. Robin Walz’s introduction puts paid to the notion that Vidocq was a Victorian Robin Hood: ‘In Vidocq the criminal and detective are one. He was the world’s first anti-hero rogue cop.’ The editor’s preface enthusiastically presents him as a forerunner of the ‘scammers and scoundrels’ in giant American corporations who profit from state-funded violence and who advertise their greed as a self-righteous war on evil. It is nice to see that, after a century and a half of misinformed adulation, Vidocq is finally getting his just deserts.

Eugène-François Vidocq was born in 1775 in Arras, where his parents ran a bakery. After bullying and pilfering his way through childhood, he signed up as a soldier and took full advantage of the administrative mayhem of Revolutionary France. He joined the rolling army, whose bogus officers supplemented their pay with raids and requisitions. ‘Captain’ Vidocq was so fond of fighting that, in his first six months, he sent two of his comrades to hospital and two others to the grave. This earned him his first nickname, ‘Sans-Gêne’ (‘Have-a-Go’).

French Flanders was a thieves’ paradise: it was close to several frontiers, its road system was an unmapped maze of ancient tracks, and it had a large, scattered population of ignorant peasants. Vidocq served a lucrative apprenticeship with various ruffians, vagabonds and swindlers. ‘My iron will was an auxiliary of my most bizarre fantasies,’ he wrote, thinking mostly of money and young women.

In 1796, at the age of 21, he was sentenced to eight years’ hard labour. A week after arriving at the hulks of Brest, he was heading east, dressed as a sailor, and for the next 13 years he kept on escaping. ‘I escaped from all the galleys of France, from more than twenty country prisons, and from every one in the département of the Seine.’ Many of these prisons were ramshackle, family-run affairs, where the rabbits were more closely guarded than the prisoners, but this was still a remarkable achievement. Before long, even his aliases had criminal records.

In 1809, Vidocq became an informer for the Paris police. Two years later, he was running his own team of thief-catchers. As head of the Brigade de Sûreté, he survived changing regimes with the efficiency of J. Edgar Hoover. For obscure reasons, he resigned in 1827 to run a paper factory at Saint-Mandé, which he described as ‘a colony for moralising thieves and liberated galley-slaves’. When the factory failed, he wrote the memoirs that made him famous far beyond the world of crime.

It says a great deal about the lot of writers in 19th-century Paris that the consummate con man was tricked and humiliated by a publisher. His partly ghost-written text was turned into a ridiculous string of melodramatic adventures by a serial writer called L’Héritier de l’Ain, who saved the best scenes for his own novels. Vidocq managed to repair some of the damage and the Memoirs established him as the unofficial authority on crime and its eradication. He was the dangerous man who could safely be invited to dinner, a Magwitch with table manners. Balzac pumped him for information on organised crime and political espionage. Victor Hugo used him as a model for Jean Valjean, the reformed convict of Les Misérables, and also, recognising Vidocq’s versatility, for Valjean’s maniacally principled pursuer, Inspector Javert.

In the 1830s and 1840s, Vidocq was called back to the Sûreté whenever there was dirty work to be done. For the rest of the time, he ran an ‘information bureau’ which specialised in swindlers but later branched out into adultery. This was twenty years before Allan Pinkerton, ‘the Vidocq of the West’, founded his National Detective Agency in Chicago. Vidocq’s Bureau des Renseignements boasted a vast database of file-cards on every known criminal and a team that sounds like a Victorian equivalent of the X-Men: the Cyclops, the Faun, the Man-about-Town, and a very tall detective who could peer through first-floor windows without using a ladder. The fact that the agency was closed down, two years before Vidocq displayed his trophies at the Cosmorama, is probably a tribute to its success. Criminals feared Vidocq’s fists; politicians feared his filing system.

The Memoirs contain little of the deductive reasoning that makes the investigations of Dupin and Holmes such a childish delight. This was after all supposed to be the real world, in which the tediously simple and the impossibly confused left little room for precise puzzles. Vidocq generally favoured brute force and basic cunning. His first theft involved the use of a glue-coated feather, fed through the crack of the cash-box in his parent’s boulangerie: a trick that might have tested an 18th-century Sherlock Holmes. But since the feather extracted only the smallest of small change, he resorted to a false key, and when it was confiscated by his father he used a pair of pliers, grabbed the cash and ‘walked very fast’ to the next town.

The most Holmesian figure in Vidocq’s memoirs is not Vidocq himself but the man he devotedly calls ‘M. Henry’, who ran the criminal department of the Paris police: ‘Rarely did a criminal whom he examined leave his office without confessing his crime or giving some clue, unknown to himself, by which to convict him.’ It was Commissioner Henry who gave Vidocq his big break by arranging his ‘escape’ from La Force prison and employing him as a thief-catcher and informer.

The perspicacious Henry, known to friend and foe alike as ‘the Bad Angel’, was forced to work with a team of skivers, cowards and incompetents. His constables had been known to lie in wait in a burglar’s cupboard for 72 hours, only to be locked in by the burglar and almost starved to death. Vidocq was a genius by comparison. He would stand at the felon’s door, imitate the sound of a man going downstairs, then apprehend the felon when he tried to leave. He had the ‘strange faculty’ of lessening his height four or five inches ‘in case of necessity’ – useful when borrowing the passport of a shorter man – and in this contracted form could walk about and jump. Nothing was too inconvenient for him. He once smeared his face with wood-stain and clogged up his nostrils with coffee and gum arabic to imitate the skin colour and chronic nasal discharge of a criminal known as ‘Tête-de-Melon’.

His greatest asset was persistence. In the cruel winter of 1812, he spent a night waist-deep in a pile of fermenting rubbish so that he could net the thief known as ‘L’Ecrevisse’ (‘the Crayfish’) without freezing to death. In the ultimately disappointing Case of the Yellow Curtains (Chapter 20 in the Master of Crime edition), Vidocq is sent to find an escaped convict, said to be holed up in an apartment with yellow silk curtains in a very long street north of Les Halles. The building is also said to be inhabited by ‘a small dwarf’ who works as a seamstress. Instead of interviewing the local haberdasher, interrogating the informant or examining the muddy street for the telltale prints of a dwarf, Vidocq records over 150 pairs of yellow curtains in his notebook, then trudges up and down the same number of staircases, knocking at doors. The result is a handy address list of ‘ravishing’ seamstresses, but no dwarf. (Poe’s Dupin might have been thinking of this exhausting search when he described Vidocq, in Murders in the Rue Morgue, as ‘a good guesser and a persevering man’: ‘He erred continuously by the very intensity of his investigations.’)

The thieves themselves, according to Vidocq, were ‘devilish stupid’. Their slang, on which he published a book in 1837 (‘destined to become the vade-mecum of all decent people’), was a secret code that gave them away as surely as a bag marked ‘swag’. A thief called Mme Bailly, having heard that she could make extra money as a nark, gave the police details of burglaries she had committed herself and was surprised when they came knocking at her door.

In his early days, even the Master of Crime was a dunce. His very talents were a handicap. He was strong enough never to refuse a fight, he became so famous as a master of disguise that he was recognised from Brest to Toulon, and, of course, in order to effect so many daring escapes, he had to be one of the most frequently captured criminals in French history. After each display of ingenuity, he became so hapless, often staying put and waiting to be recaptured, that his crimes – burglary, swindling, forgery, beating people up and killing them in duels – look like an unconscious desire to be taken in hand by the grim, paternal state. Sometimes he escaped but stayed in the prison, just to enjoy the amazement of his warders when they found him out of his manacles. (Vidocq could carry on a normal conversation with a file in his mouth.) As soon as he left the unremunerative world of crime for a steady job with the forces of order, he became significantly more intelligent. His transformation into a policeman was a coming of age, though not necessarily a step in the right direction.

Vidocq may not, as his admirers claim, have invented fingerprinting and the science of ballistics, but he did show the importance of keeping detailed criminal records. He proved, on occasion, that reason could be applied to problems previously left to chance and leg-work. The appeal of his cases lies in the concrete details, in the extension of the crime itself to an evocative ‘crime scene’, in which miscellaneous and even irrelevant details are heavy with significance. In Vidocq’s material view of the world, crime is a miasma that seeps into every nook and cranny. An innocent-looking loaf of bread, for instance, might be an improvised valise containing ‘a shirt, a pair of trousers and some handkerchiefs’. This was surely one of the main attractions for Balzac. The seedy Pension Vauquer in Le Père Goriot, where Vautrin first appears, is the vision of someone who thinks like a detective even when no crime has been committed: everything in the house is a clue to its occupant, and vice versa.

Despite Vidocq’s unusually methodical approach, the real foundation of his prestige was superstition rather than reason. When he first went forth with pliers and crowbar, belief in wizardry was still widespread. As late as 1835 a witch was burned to death with the collusion of local officials at Beaumont-en-Cambrésis, a day’s walk from Vidocq’s home town. The judicial system was perceived as an evil intrusion, even by victims of crime: a common prayer asked for deliverance from Satan and Justice; the trickster with supernatural powers was the hero of many folk-tales. Vidocq was the archetypal will-o’-the-wisp with fists of steel, the man who could walk through walls and make fools of the authorities. Once, he was told by an unsuspecting policeman’s daughter that the great Vidocq could turn himself into ‘a truss of hay’. ‘A truss of hay! How?’ ‘Yes, monsieur. One day my father followed him, and just as he was going to put his hand on his collar, he grasped only a wisp of hay. That’s not all talk, the whole brigade saw the hay, which was burned.’

The crucial feature of Vidocq’s rise to power is not his reincarnation as a policeman. The passage between the Préfecture and the underworld was always busy with two-faced opportunists rushing in both directions. Vidocq’s great achievement was to confer his magical, fairy-tale prestige on a branch of government administration. He was the first folklore bandit to have an office and a salary, the first to lend himself to political violence. As a detective, he was far more dangerous than he ever was as a crook.

Vidocq came to power at a time when state justice was becoming pervasive. (The first paragraph of his memoirs, significantly, mentions Robespierre, who was born a few doors from the Vidocq bakery in Arras.) He was the human face – or faces – of a system that spent more time rooting out subversives than catching thieves. By painting a picture of the capital as a warren of criminals, whose ‘musky’ smell his nose instinctively detected, he helped to create a demand for people like himself: legalised avengers, who would give the taxpayers their money’s worth by eradicating evil and cleaning up the streets.

The idea that Vidocq was a self-made hero rather than a criminal in the service of a criminal state has been the dominant view ever since the publication of his memoirs in 1828. The Vidocq Society of Philadelphia, which meets once a month to investigate ‘cold case’ homicides and which was cofounded by a former FBI agent and lifelong Vidocq fan, celebrates his ‘legendary . . . regard for his fellow man’: ‘He was a philanthropist who helped the poor and abandoned of Paris. At the same time that he was pursuing the guilty, he was also freeing the innocent.’ This is just the popular, fantasy view of Vidocq, in its modern version. It makes an interesting contrast to historical fact.

Contemporary crime figures for many French départements were so low as to suggest an almost entirely law-abiding population. In Paris, Vidocq himself complained in Les Voleurs, ‘many people are in the detestable habit of leaving their key in the door.’ Most criminal acts, including murders, were dealt with locally and according to local custom. Even in its heyday, Vidocq’s Brigade de Sûreté employed only 28 men and women – a tiny platoon, compared to the army of spies and provocateurs. Throughout Vidocq’s lifetime, the population contained more detectives than criminals. The number of people he is supposed to have arrested each year far exceeds the annual number of convictions for crimes against the person or against property in the entire Seine département. At this rate, it would have taken fewer than fifteen Vidocqs to arrest every criminal in the country.

His dodgy memoirs are ultimately more thrilling than the open-and-shut casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Readers of Vidocq must be either fools or detectives. His memoirs are suspiciously like the selective confession of a prisoner with time on his hands and a captive audience too polite or scared to interrupt the relentless self-exoneration. True, he might have carried a knife, but it was only for eating meat or for carving a carrot into a mould for a key made of prison spoons melted over a fire of rags and lard. His hands, admittedly, were covered in blood when his mistress Francine was found with five stab wounds inflicted by his knife, but he just happened to have cut his hand on some broken glass and Francine, by her own admission, had borrowed the knife for a suicide attempt. Even the crucial story of the crime that first sent him to the galleys went through different versions. According to the original one, he was unjustly accused of forging an order of release for a prisoner at Lille. In a later version, he claimed to have been convicted for forging a key at Douai prison.

This is not to say that Vidocq was not sometimes well-intentioned; he would hardly be such an interestingly sinister figure if he had never believed in the rightness of his mission. He knew from his own experience the near impossibility of forging a new life after prison. He thought that there was a criminal ‘class’ with innate characteristics, but he also believed that crime was caused by poverty, that corporal punishment was a futile humiliation, and that convicts, treated like adult human beings, would behave like adult human beings. The factory for ex-convicts at Saint-Mandé was, on paper, a noble enterprise, even if the workers had to slave for six months before they were paid a wage. The factory did not fail, as his English translator sneeringly supposed, because it was run by convicts, but because Vidocq lost the money gambling.

Still, many questions remain: what exactly did the Brigade de Sûreté do? Why was an ex-convict who was known to be a habitual gambler put in charge of the Police des Jeux, which supervised casinos? Why did so many different regimes ask for his help when they were threatened by popular revolt? And how did he manage to retire from the Sûreté, in 1827, with almost half a million francs (about two million pounds today) – a sum, as Robin Walz points out, ‘substantially in excess of his annual salary of 5000 francs’? According to some official reports, Vidocq and his agents were super-thieves who arrested the competition and made off with the spoils. In June 1823, a group of swindlers was found to have purchased Vidocq’s protection with some silverware, a grandfather clock and a musical snuffbox made of gold. During the June 1832 uprising, which forms the climax of Les Misérables, Vidocq and his counter-terrorist crew helped to ‘tidy away’ insurgents on the Left Bank. In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean rescues Marius from Javert. Vidocq would have had him shot.

These reports, of course, are just as suspect as Vidocq’s memoirs. He certainly had enemies, not just in the criminal underworld, but also in the Préfecture de Police. A former convict with a gift for self-promotion and a fantastic record of arrests was never going to be popular with his colleagues. Some of them, in a fit of pique, even helped the notorious ‘Ecrevisse’ to slip out of prison, a few days after Vidocq had covered himself in glory (and garbage) by putting him behind bars.

But Vidocq himself boasted of his exploits as a counter-terrorist and agent provocateur. For many people, his picturesque crimes, his protection rackets, his womanising and gambling were trivial compared to his ‘good deeds’. Long after his retirement from the Sûreté, attempts were made on his life, not by disgruntled convicts or envious policemen, but by people who had seen him mopping up resistants on the barricades in 1832. ‘They were not easy years for him,’ P.J. Stead said in Vidocq: A Biography (1953), with the customary benignity of his admirers.

The old showman who turned up in London in 1845 with his costumes, his manacles and his tropical fruits was still on active service. He returned to London the following year and met Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in the candle-lit wine cellars of Berry Brothers in St James’s Street. Vidocq had served the Louis-Napoléon faction as a consultant escapologist and may have planned the future emperor’s escape from the fortress of Ham. He was just as useful in 1848 to President Lamartine, who later claimed that, if his colleagues had been willing, he would have ‘mastered the situation with only Vidocq to help’. The June 1848 uprising was savagely repressed, as far as we know without Vidocq’s help, but Lamartine’s remark is still a startling tribute to his power. The cosy tales of stake-outs and disguises look increasingly like the convenient fables of a state that habitually farmed out its policing to former criminals.

According to Stead, Vidocq was an enthusiastic double agent well into his seventies. He infiltrated workers’ meetings, ‘encouraged’ voters to support Louis-Napoléon, and pretended to back an Orleanist conspiracy. In 1849, he returned to the Conciergerie, ostensibly as a prisoner but in reality to spy on Auguste Blanqui and other socialists arrested in the June uprising. With Vidocq on the case, Paris was ‘safer’ than ever before.

Some time after Louis-Napoléon’s coup, Vidocq was seen exhorting a busload of Parisians to cheer the president as he passed in a carriage, and when the president returned from a tour of the provinces, a huge, illuminated sign appeared in Vidocq’s windows on the Boulevard Beaumarchais: ‘Louis-Napoléon, Messiah of 2 December 1851, Bless you! You have saved and regenerated France.’

This sinister sycophant, for whom loyalty to the state was the guarantee of his virtue, remained a swindler to the last. He changed his name to M. Bourgeois and applied for poor relief. But as the Charity Commissioner discovered when he visited Vidocq’s eight-room apartment, he was not exactly destitute. He still had a handsome collection of paintings and a steady supply of young actresses.

Vidocq died on 11 May 1857 and was buried at Saint-Mandé. The funeral was not well attended. The only people who had reason to be grateful to him would have compromised themselves by attending the funeral of a spy. But a small crowd gathered at his home. It included a squad of policemen who had come to take away his records and, representing his adoring, gullible audience of the future, 11 women, each carrying a will that made her the sole heir to his fortune.