Friday, February 5, 2016

*an evil genius at work: Fantômas, by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain

Wildside Press, 2009
originally published 1911
246 pp


"What did you say?"
"I said: Fantômas."
"And what does that mean?"
"Nothing ...Everything!"
"But what is it?" 
"Nobody...And yet, yes, it is somebody!"
"And what does the somebody do?" 
"Spreads terror!" 

Fantômas is book two in this year's focus on crime fiction/mysteries that were made into movies.  Although I had planned on watching the movie today, I found enough time to take a look at it yesterday. To my surprise, the movie version isn't just one film but several serialized silents, so it didn't take as long as I thought it would since I only watched the film corresponding to this book. 
And oh, what a book it is!! Not only is it fun, but it ends in a complete cliffhanger so I had to buy book two,  The Exploits of Juve (Juve contre Fantômas), just to see what happens. I have this feeling that I'll end up with the entire set of  Fantômas novels if the ending of book one is any indicator.

The story begins in the Dordogne chateau of Beaulieu, the home of the Marquise de Langrune, at one of her regular Wednesday dinner parties.   Conversation comes around to the mysterious disappearance of Lord Beltham,  now being investigated by the celebrated  M. Juve of the Criminal Investigation Department. This conversation is our introduction to the mysterious Fantômas; it seems that the word is out that Juve believes this evil criminal is somehow responsible for Lord Beltham's disappearance and that Juve has "sworn that he will take him, and he is after him body and soul."   The very next day the body of the Marquise de Langrune is found in her room, her throat cut so deeply that it seemed almost as if "her head was severed from the trunk."  It seems that robbery was not the motive, and it also seems as though only someone in the house could have done this horrific deed.  Signs point to young Charles Rambert, a young man staying there as a guest (and who soon disappears)  but Juve, who is investigating, isn't quite sure.

The murder of the Marquise de Langrune is the first of a series of strange crimes and murders that take place at various locations;   Juve is convinced that they are all the work of a single person: Fantômas. Trying to catch him, though, is going to be tough. Some people even have doubts as to whether or not there is a Fantômas; one magistrate tells Juve that
"Fantômas is the too obvious subterfuge, the cheapest device for investing a case with mock honours. Between you and me, you know perfectly well that Fantômas is merely a legal fiction -- a lawyers' joke. Fantômas has no existence in fact!"
But Juve thinks he knows better -- he is obsessed with finding this elusive figure and has been after him for years.  The story begins to really heat up with the discovery of a body in a trunk at No. 147 rue Lévert, the rooms of a man named Gurn; even then, although Juve notes that "Everything points to Gurn," and while wondering if his imagination is getting the better of him, he can't help but think that
"about this murder, committed in the very middle of Paris, in a crowded house where yet nobody heard or suspected anything, there is an audacity, a certainty of impunity, an above all a multiplicity of precautions, that are typical of the Fantômas manner!"
As the crimes start to stack up, Juve employs all manner of disguises, subterfuge, and even applies the latest scientific methods of Bertillon  to try to rein in this mysterious evil genius.  Toward the end of the book it looks like things may just be going his way, but in this twisted tale, nothing is ever quite as it seems.

René Navarre as Fantômas
The movie version I watched is the old, silent version, starring Rene Navarre as Fantômas (1913).  It is a joy to watch, although since it's a part of a string of serials, it doesn't quite pick up a lot of what's in the book, nor does it really pick up the essence of this novel.  There are also some changes in character (I can't say who or I'd be giving one of the secrets of the novel away), and it starts with a crime that comes later in the novel, skipping the murder of the Marquise, for example. However, what it does reflect very, very well is Juve's obsession with trying to catch Fantômas.  Edmund Breon, who portrays the erstwhile Inspector, does such an excellent job in the role that it's not hard at all to see him not as the actor but as Juve himself.

Edmund Breon as Inspector Juve

The book was so much fun that I didn't even mind the cliffhanger ending, and now I'm caught up in Juve's ongoing quest to bring this mysterious evildoer to justice, so I know I'm  going to have many hours of entertainment ahead of me as I make my way through the books.  I'll most definitely recommend the book to people who are into classics, or into fun sort of pulpy mysteries or to those who want something very much off the beaten path.  This book (if you'll forgive the trite phrase) held me spellbound the entire time I was reading it -- and I can't think of a better recommendation for a couple of days' worth of sheer reading enjoyment.


  1. Great review! I am reading the book now as well and loving it.

    1. It's fun, isn't it??
      Thank you -- I love this book!


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