WHEN, as a schoolboy, I went to Paris, I found the city dotted with posters for a thriller called Fantomas S'Amuse. Looking at the sinister masked figure of the protagonist, I regretted that my French had not got much further than searches for the pen of my aunt, because this Fantomas seemed like someone suited for the agreeable fearfulness of late-night reading.
Many years have passed since that trip, during which my needs for literary terror were largely filled by Sax Rohmer's chronicles of Dr. Fu Manchu until, as untouchable as one of Dr. Fu's white peacocks, Fantomas reappeared in this English translation of the first of his bursts of nastiness. In a sort of scholarly introduction John Ashbery tells us that Fantomas made his first appearance in 1911 and that 31 sequels to this volume fascinated and horrified all levels of French society. Among the admirers of Fantomas were such literary heavyweights as Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire, and even the great wordsmith James Joyce honored the polished rascal with the new-minted adjective "Enfantomastic".
What creates this kind of pop immortality? Ashbery confesses to puzzlement about some of the high-level critical praise heaped on this work which is more marked by the speed of Nick Carter than by the speech of Virgil to whose Aeneid Blaise Cendrars compares Fantomas.
Certainly one thing the masked menace had going for him was the appeal of almost all-powerful evil. Dr. Fu Manchu first appeared when Fantomas had been in evil flower for a couple of years, and the Doctor, if the count in my library is accurate, went through 18 adventures without falling final prey to Sir Denis Nayland Smith. Sir Denis grew gray while remaining, from 1913 to 1957 -- the end of the series but not the demise of Dr. Fu -- a step behind the man "with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan," a man "who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric . . . an adept in certain obscure arts and sciences which no university of today can teach."
The education of Fantomas doesn't get much coverage in this volume, but certainly he must have spent time in the best of dramatic schools as again and again his disguises fool Inspector Juve and his collection of Bertillon measurement tools. It is, I suspect one of his fascinations that, unlike the richly described Fu Manchu, he is shadowy in everything except the absolute nature of his evil. His word, unlike Dr. Fu's, is worthless, his compunctions nonexistent, and his physical powers tremendous.
He evokes, too, a time when the emerging splendor of La Belle Epoque cast a lurid and cruel light on those parts of the Parisian world which remained stubbornly dark and wretched, those twisted streets where Fantomas prowled with the same ease with which, disguised as the nobbiest of nobs, he entered the drawing rooms of the great. ASHBERY tells us that this translation of Fantomas is a modernized version of one made in 1915. One unfortunate result of the up-dating is the use of such phrases as "Between a rock and a hard place," "chewed me out," and "You can sack out."
However, these bits of grit in the smooth cream of the wonderfully over-flavored prose do not really spoil the feeling that as we read we are living in a time of intensity and danger when only the celebrated and strangely unsuccessful Inspector Juve stands between us and the steel hands of Fantomas, hands that can shut off forever the flow of rich wines and festive foods on the ornate table just out of our reach in the suddenly darkened room.
When I had finished reading Fantomas, placed, as I like to be in such cases, with an open ground floor window behind me, I fell to musing on the plot, and without the pell mell of the narrative to pull me along, began discovering holes big enough to drive through in a fiacre or barouche. I stopped myself at once, remembering that authors like Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, creators of Fantomas, achieve their breathless effects by writing with breathless speed. Edgar Wallace used to dictate whole novels before rushing off to the races to lose the book's royalties, and despite the fact that Dave became Bill after 50 pages, we still read his books for their vitality.
Fantomas may be improbable, but 75 years after his first appearance, he is still scary.
Heywood Hale Broun, a correspondent for CBS' "Sunday Morning," is the author of the family memoir, "Whose Little Boy Are You."