Friday, 28 July 2017

Forgotten Book - The Blackmailers

Harper Collins' Detective Story Club imprint is by no means confined to Golden Age detective fiction. Hugh Conway and Anna K. Greene are among the significant Victorian crime writers represented in the series. Another is Emile Gaboriau, creator of Monsieur Lecoq, a prototype of the Great Detective, and a master of disguise.

Richard Dalby's introduction contains useful background .The book was first published as Dossier No. 113 in 1867, and has also appeared in English translation as File No. 113. Apparently this original version ran to a massive 145,000 words. Collins commissioned a new translation by Ernest Tristan, which cut the word cut roughly by half while retaining the essentials of the storyline intact. The abbreviated version was called The Blackmailers, and this is the version of the story that has been reissued.

The story gets off to a very good start. A bank is robbed, and only two men appear to have access to the safe that the criminal(s) broke into. Which of them is guilty? Or has something else happened? The official police detective, nicknamed "the Squirrel", is keen but inclined to follow false scents. Before long, the rather enigmatic Lecoq becomes involved, sometimes in disguise.

After a suspenseful build-up, we then move into an extended flashback which charts events of the past which led up to the crime .Despite the (very wise) decision to cut the story in half, this melodramatic storytelling seems to go on forever, and my interest began to wane. This, the third case for Lecoq, is historically significant, but the structural weaknesses show that authors were still trying to figure out how best to tell a mystery story. Conan Doyle experienced similar difficulties with his own longer stories about Sherlock Holmes, but Holmes is an inherently more fascinating character than Lecoq. But, just possibly, without Lecoq there might not have been a Sherlock Holmes.


J F Norris said...

I got through 3/4 of Gaboriau's The Widow Lerouge before I just gave up. The detection is keen, very French (if you know what I mean), and there are thrilling incidents but it just goes on and on...and on. Truncated Gaboriau like Tristan's translation would probably be much easier to read and enjoy.

P.S. Very much enjoying The Story of Classic Crime... I jumping around the book reading about certain authors I never heard of first because for me it's more of a reference book, you know. ;^) Thanks for the nod in your Acknowledgments page. (I read everything in a book!)

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, John. Lecoq definitely needs a bit of abridgement! Delighted you are enjoying the book. I am grateful to all those who have helped me with my researches and writing, and that definitely includes you.

Xavier said...

I haven't read this one, though I own both the complete and abridged versions of it, but I can see why a modern (and non-French) reader may find Gaboriau heavy-going. I'd rather recommend to the newcomer the novella The Little Man of the Batignolles and the earlier novel The Mystery of Orcival. The former is probably the most "modern" thing Gaboriau ever wrote, and it even includes the earliest use of misdirection on record while the latter is arguably his most satisfying novel, with the investigation and flashback parts merging smoothly and of equal interest. Lecoq may not be Holmes (but then who is?) but he really shines as a detective and a character throughout this, his first solo case. I know you and I often have the same tastes in crime fiction so I strongly advise you to check it out.

P.S.: I must confess that I'm a little shocked and disappointed that the Crime Club rereleases this book, a historically important work despite its apparent shortcomings, in an abridged version. This reminds me of not good old days when French publishers similarly "adapted" foreign crime novels to make them fit in 250 pages. Not only is it morally dubious but it also diminishes or outright ruins the book's putative aesthetic value. I'm now rereading the whole Carr canon in English after years of relying on French "translations" and it feels like I'm reading completely different books.

Martin Edwards said...

Very helpful recommendations, Xavier. Thanks. I'm sure that Gaboriau is worth persevering with. I must say, though, that I can totally understand why the publishers issued the abrdiged version of this book!