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Reviewed by Jesse Sublett, October 10, 2003, Books

Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime

by François Eugène Vidocq

AK Press/Nabat, 369 pp., $18

Born the son of a baker in 1775 France, François Eugène Vidocq realized early that he wasn't cut out to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, he developed a taste for street life and women, financed mostly by petty theft, including regular raids of his father's till. Shamed by his last robbery, Vidocq left home, and after stints with clowns, puppeteers, and the army, he fell in with a band of criminals. After being caught and imprisoned (skipping over his various jail breaks), Vidocq offered his services to the Sûreté (security police) as a police spy in 1809. With his intimate knowledge of criminal methods, including an uncanny knack for disguising his appearance (sometimes by merely employing facial contortions), Vidocq excelled at his work and was soon made the first head of the detective branch. He introduced the card-index system of keeping records on crime, making plaster casts of footprints, and the use of ballistics, and held patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper.

Originally published in a four-volume edition of 350,000 words, this new edition of his memoirs has been condensed to a rollicking 369 pages of adventures in crime, detection, and lust for life.

Today, an elite group of forensic scientists and criminal investigators that tackle cold cases seeks to preserve the memory of Vidocq's contributions to crime investigation techniques and even pays him tribute in its name -- the Vidocq Society. But a man like Vidocq is bound also to make powerful enemies, and those enemies might well have contributed to his downfall in 1832, when he was fired after being charged with instigating a crime for the purpose of uncovering it -- but it's still a great story, whichever side you choose to take. Besides, the master quickly dusted himself off and founded the first modern detective agency and credit bureau, making him possibly the first modern private eye.

The modern detective fiction tradition, using Vidocq as the prototypical master detective, was born during his lifetime. First was Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin, premiering in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, followed in 1865 by the not-so-subtly-named Lecoq, the protagonist of four stories by Emile Gaboriau in 1865, and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, who debuted in 1887, 12 years after Vidocq's death. Melville quoted Vidocq in Moby-Dick, and Dickens mentioned him in Great Expectations. Victor Hugo mined him for both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. O. Henry played Vidocq for grins as Tic Toq in three short stories, and not even the inventor of the trench coat or gumshoe has had a greater impact on crime fiction.

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