The ‘private eye’ in literature begins with the real-life character of Eugene Francois Vidocq

January 25, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, history, journalism, Private eye, writing.

The genesis of the private eye lies with a 19th Frenchman named Eugene Francois Vidocq.

Eugene Francois Vidocq

Vidocq’s life and legends, some of which he created through his partially fictionalized memoirs, were the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), which is considered the world’s first detective story.

All of the famous detectives of literature — including Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone — owe something to the real-life Vidocq.

As a young man in the 1790s, Vidocq appeared to have a promising career in the army ahead of him. His trouble was that he was too imaginative – and maybe too hot-headed – to follow the rules. He strayed to the wrong side of the law, and there he remained for the next decade and a half.

Committed to prison by the courts several times, Vidocq always managed an escape. He had a generous, affable nature that sometimes got him into trouble — such as the time he forged a pardon for a fellow prisoner. He was a master of disguise, which also aided him in eluding the authorities. He was made an escaped by marching out of town in a funeral procession.

In 1809 he found himself in the hands of the police against, this time facing a long, harsh prison sentence. He boldly switched sides, telling the police that he could go undercover (to use a modern term) and help them capture dangerous and highly sought-after criminals.

For nearly two years, he did this with some noted success. He later wrote in his memoirs:

I believe I might have become a perpetual spy, so far was every one from supposing that any connivance existed between the agents of the public authority and myself. Even the porters and keepers were in ignorance of my mission with which I was entrusted. Adored by the thieves, esteemed by the most determined bandits (for even these hardened wretches have a sentiment which they call esteem), I could always rely on their devotion to me.

Eugène François Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq, p. 190

Vidocq also – obviously – had a talent for self-promotion, which he used to great effect for the rest of his life.

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And that life was, indeed, remarkable. It included

  • establishment of a plain-clothes criminal investigative unit for the French police, which inspired a similar unit for  Scotland Yard in Great Britain and eventually the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States;
  • identification techniques of criminals that relied on extensive record-keeping;
  • criminal investigation procedures that included ballistics examinations, crime-scene analysis, and even the beginnings of finger-printing;
  • founding of the first private detective agency, which he did in 1833 after tiring of constantly squabbling with police.

Vidocq was never shy about proclaiming his successes, taking credit for his accomplishments, and comparing his genius to the bumbling methods of the uniformed police. His fame spread through Europe and the United States, particularly as he cultivated close friendships with famous French authors of the day such as Honore de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Dumas, just to name a few. Each of these writers created characters for their novels based on Vidocq.

Today, Vidocq is not well-known, not as much as he should be. As Mike Ashley has written

As with so many originals, Vidocq’s life has become so overshadowed and masked, not only by those he inspired, but by his own legend as well, that today, if he is mentioned at all, it is to dismiss his achievements as fiction. But he was real, and he was a true living legend.

Source: The Great Detectives: Vidocq – Strand Mag In this article from issue 4, Mike Ashley looks at the life of Vidocq, a thief turned detective who was to prove the inspiration for many great fictional detectives.

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Biographies of Vidocq:

  • Edwards, Samuel (1977). The Vidocq Dossier: The Story of the World’s First Detective (1st ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-25176-1.
  • Hodgetts, Edward A. (1928). Vidocq: A Master of Crime. London: Selwyn & Blount.
  • Morton, James. The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq. Ebury Press. ISBN 978-0-09-190337-4.
  • Stead, John Philip (1954). Vidocq: Picaroon of Crime.

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