I first heard of Vidocq when, in college, I read several of Balzac’s novels. In “Pere Goriot,” the book’s provincial young hero, at sea in 19th-century Paris, is befriended by a daring criminal mastermind named Vautrin. In “Lost Illusions” and “The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans,” a worldly prelate turns out to be Vautrin in disguise. Ultimately, Balzac tells us, this elusive Napoleon of crime shifts allegiances and, when last glimpsed, has risen to become head of the Paris secret police. Vautrin, I learned from my teacher, was based on the amazing Eugene-Francois Vidocq (1775-1857).
As James Morton reminds the reader in his introduction to “The First Detective,” Vidocq led the kind of devil-may-care life that most men simply daydream about. When little more than a boy, he ran away from home, lost all the money he had stolen (from his father’s shop) in a drunken debauch at a brothel, then landed a job with a circus. Exceptionally strong, apparently irresistible to women and an excellent swordsman (as well as a master of the French foot-fighting technique called savate), Vidocq passed the first half of his adult life as a soldier, thief, smuggler, gambler and convict. No prison could hold him, as he escaped from one after the other, often through the use of ingenious disguises.
Eventually, Vidocq switched sides. Faced with a long sentence on a chain gang, this natural-born, if somewhat unscrupulous, survivor cut a deal. Why not, he asked, set a thief to catch a thief — or rather many thieves? In 1809, while still locked up in La Force prison, Vidocq quietly began to pass along information and cellblock gossip to the authorities. In 1811, given his freedom, he started a new career with the Paris police, at first snitching on his former companions in larceny, then tracking down the culprits behind various robberies and killings, and sometimes acting as an agent provocateur. Within a year, he had founded the undercover division of the police — the Surete — and had become its first chief.
As such, Vidocq regularly hired ex-cons and prostitutes as his agents, attempted to prevent crimes and not just solve them, and — no surprise here — somehow managed to enrich himself. Under his command, the Surete captured thousands of criminals (about 1,500 a year). In 1827, though, Vidocq fell from favor, being accused of graft and blamed for the recidivism of some of the rough men and women he employed. Almost immediately, he did what all public officials do when they leave office: He published his memoirs. In 1828, the four volumes of his life and adventures became an international bestseller. One modern translator has said that they contain nothing less than “the best criminal stories in the world.”
Yet Vidocq’s career was far from over. During the last 25 years of his life, he poured money into a paper mill, which failed; started the first private detective agency (the Bureau des Renseignements — that is, the Office of Information); repeatedly got into trouble with his staid successors at the Surete; traveled to London with a kind of “Chamber of Horrors” show, which displayed instruments of torture as well as the manacles and weighted boots he had worn as a prisoner; and dined out regularly with the high and the mighty. What host or hostess could resist the postprandial stories of this charismatic rogue?
Those stories, of course, sometimes smacked of fiction — could anyone have packed quite this much experience into one life? — and to this day there are questions about the authenticity of at least some of the anecdotes in the “Memoirs.” Still, it’s little wonder that Vidocq directly inspired Balzac’s mastermind Vautrin and to some degree all the great fictional criminals and detective heroes of the later 19th century, including Dickens’s Magwitch (from “Great Expectations”) and Poe’s Dupin (who mentions him by name in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). In Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” the two main characters — convict-escapee Jean Valjean and his relentless pursuer, Inspector Javert — are modeled, respectively, after the young and middle-aged Vidocq.
More recently, this almost-mythic figure has appeared in “Vidocq” — a movie given a fantastic, graphic-novel treatment similar to that of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes — and in Louis Bayard’s superb historical thriller“The Black Tower.” What we need now is a new edition of Edwin Gile Rich’s 1935 English abridgement of the memoirs, or better yet, a wholly new translation.
In the meantime, lacking anything better, James Morton’s biography provides a fast-moving introduction to “the Terror of Thieves.” While Morton often just summarizes episodes from the memoirs, he does carry his biography into Vidocq’s later years. What troubles me about the book, however, is its jaggedy, haphazardly digressive style and an air of casualness verging on the sloppy and vulgar. At one point Vidocq is described as “a few swallows short of a liter bottle.” A woman is called “one of the most high-spirited if not reckless fillies of her time.” Throughout, Morton seems to leave out transitional sentences or abruptly refer back to elements he hasn’t actually mentioned. At other moments, he suddenly brings in facts, sometimes striking ones, that nonetheless verge on the non sequitur: Discussing a former English prostitute suspected of murder, he concludes: “She died in 1840. It was the year that in Brussels photography was first used for police purposes.” He even botches Oscar Wilde’s famous quip by claiming that “no sensible man can help laughing at the death of Little Dorrit.” He means Little Nell (Little Dorrit doesn’t die). He somehow mistakenly names Rastignac, instead of Lucien de Rubempre, as the object of Vautrin’s attentions in “The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans.” Above all, “The First Detective” lacks clarity of design, even as the plethora of names makes it difficult to keep track of which criminals are which.
Nonetheless, Vidocq’s life is so exciting that one tends to partially excuse these lapses. Here is an account of the notorious robbery of the Lyons Mail and a history of the Sanson family of executioners. Here are walk-on roles for the gourmet Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, revered for his monumental “Physiology of Taste”; the poet Lamartine; the notorious murderer Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, who claimed to have been inspired to a life of crime by reading Vidocq’s memoirs; and even Jean Gaspard Deburau, the mime-hero of Marcel Carne’s great film “Les Enfants du Paradis.”
Vidocq knew them all. His was truly an astonishing life and one that awaits a biography to match it.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom
THE FIRST DETECTIVE
The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq: Criminal, Spy, and Private Eye
By James Morton
Overlook. 266 pp. $27.95