Friday, May 19, 2017

*an 1840s double feature: A Murky Business, by Honoré de Balzac and The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories, by Edgar Allan Poe

Well, I am so scatterbrained at the moment that I can't remember where exactly I'd read that I shouldn't miss Balzac's A Murky Business (Une Ténébreuse Affaire) as part of examining crime literature of the 19th century, but it really doesn't matter.

Penguin, 1981
originally published 1841
223 pp

In his Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes that 
"The crime story as a literary form has developed alongside other fiction in a way shaped largely by social events, and its course has run roughly like this..." (283)
and proceeds to describe six different categories in the "progression."  The first of these is about "crime as a form of radical social protest," and here Symons mentions "Godwin, Lytton, Balzac." In this group, he says, "the criminal is seen as a hero, or a victim of social injustice."  Spot on for all three.  Balzac also has an entry in Encylopedia of Mystery and Detection (eds. Chris Steinbrunner & Otto Penzler), telling us that
"Balzac had no affection for the police..and never presented a detective sympathetically; on the other hand, criminals and murderers are often the heroes of his books." (18/19)
Balzac was also a close friend of Vidocq, and according to Graham Robb's 2004 London Review of Books take on Vidocq's memoirs, he used to "pump" Vidocq "for information on organized crime and political espionage."

It's 1803, and Napoleon is poised to crown himself  Emperor before beginning his long European campaigns.  A "royalist plot" has supposedly been discovered and  two police officials (Peyrade and Corentin) seek four noblemen who are accused of being behind it. By their own machinations, Peyrade and Corentin (who are noted in the introduction as "perfect examples of the cunning and malevolent police spy"), carry out what can only be called a miscarriage of justice by setting up these four men along with an estate steward to be framed for a crime that merits the death penalty.  I think that's about all I'll say -- a) it's way more complicated than just that and b) well, it's a good historical fiction novel that covers political intrigue that deserves a full reading.  As for how it stands up as a crime novel, well, Herbert J. Hunt in the intro does note that "We may find some fault" in how it fares as a "whodunit," citing three major issues re various plot elements, but concludes by saying that "it may be accepted as a fair example of an early mystery story...," and I have to concur.  There is certainly a mystery to be found in and among the police machinations here, one which is not fully solved until just toward the end.  More importantly though, the book reveals much about the courts and the system of justice of the time -- and is very much worth reading.


And now, to what is supposed to be the grandaddy of all modern detective fiction, I turn to the three stories by Poe featuring his detective C. Auguste Dupin in Leonaur's The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories.  

Leonaur Books, 2009
131 pp

Oh dear. With this book I have once again become that fish swimming against the tide of opinions of practically everyone else who's read these three stories contained in this book, the sum total of Poe's Dupin stories. While I get their importance in the history of detective/crime fiction, quite frankly, this book bored me silly.   I love Poe's gothic/supernatural-ish works to be sure; his somewhat cryptic Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was weird but kept me flipping pages, but I just can't stand Auguste Dupin nor do I care for Poe's writing here. 

 First in this collection is the blockbuster "Murders in the Rue Morgue," followed by "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and last comes "The Purloined Letter." All of these stories reflect  Dupin's method of  "ratinocination, a cerebral method of combining intellect, logic, imagination and the transference of self into the mind of the criminal," (7), and I sort of get it in the first and last stories, but what killed me was reading "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt."  Evidently, Poe's logic behind writing it was that he wanted to tackle the real-life case of the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers; as he notes, 
"The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, at New York." (54)
[As a sidebar, if you want to read about the case and Poe's interest, there's an interesting article from The Smithsonian here.]

In all three of these tales, it's Dupin's thought process that solves the crimes -- other than a brief visit to the crime scene in "Murders of the Rue Morgue" and a short visit to the home of the known thief in "The Purloined Letter," Dupin turns out to be the epitome of the armchair detective, letting his mind do all of the work.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's the way these tales are written that made me wish I'd saved the book for a night of trying to battle insomnia. Don't get me wrong -- I'm very used to reading nineteenth-century prose, and if I could survive Lytton's writing in Eugene Aram, well, Poe should have been a cakewalk.  However, "Marie Rogêt" just about did me in and in "The Purloined Letter," I counted a five-page rundown of "the particulars" of a search made by the Prefect of the Parisian police.  Five pages just noting every potential hiding place for the missing letter -- that's just uncalled for, really.

But, as I said, readers seem to love this book, so it's probably me.

I'd say give it a try simply because of its place in crime/mystery/detective fiction history -- now I can say been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.  Not one of my favorites at all this year.

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