Monthly Archives: March 2013

The First Detective?

In 1833, a Frenchman named Eugène François Vidocq founded an organisation that was, in effect, the world’s first freelance detective agency. Presumably acting on the principle of “set a thief to catch a thief,” Vidocq’s “Bureau of Universal Information” (Le Bureau des Renseignements Universels pour le Commerce et l’Industrie) was staffed almost entirely by ex-convicts. The Bureau had excellent results, especially in apprehending fraudsters and con-men, but its success did not impress the police force — not least because the Bureau had a habit of not always following the letter of the law itself. The police were determined to put an end to Vidocq’s Bureau.

After ten years of successful operation, they finally believed that they had succeeded when Vidocq himself was arrested and charged with taking money on false pretenses and unlawful imprisonment. Although he was initially sentenced to five years in prison, Vidocq appealed and won. The appeal court presumably believed his story that the police were unfairly trying to suppress a rival who had embarrassed them with superior investigative skills.

Eugène François Vidocq, by Achille Devéria

Though perhaps the police had good reasons to distrust Vidocq. In his youth, he joined the French army and promptly deserted after striking a superior. He rejoined (under a pseudonym) and, again in trouble, deserted again. After a spate of petty crimes which lead to a series of spells in prison, he was convicted for forgery and spent time working on the galleys in Brest and later Toulon. (Fans of Les Miserables will be interested to know that Victor Hugo certainly knew about Vidocq and likely used him as the model not only for Jean Valjean but Inspector Javert, too — two sides of the same complex character. Honoré de Balzac’s master-criminal character Vautrin was also inspired by Vidocq’s exploits.)

After a meandering career, part legal, part illegal, that ended in yet another spell in prison, Vidocq volunteered to become a police informer. At last he had found his true vocation, as he discovered a natural talent for gaining the trust of a fellow convict and getting him to reveal all manner of information that the felon would prefer to remain secret — information that subsequently became very useful to the police. Finally, when his fellow inmates began to grow suspicious, Vidocq staged a spectacular “escape” (with more than a helping hand from the authorities). Although he now gained his freedom (and a pardon for his earlier misdemeanors) he was still obliged to work for the police. However, his extraordinary success in unmasking criminals eventually came to the attention of the French Revolutionary government, and in 1813, Napoleon signed a decree to create a completely new branch of the police force — the Sûreté Nationale — specifically with the task of investigating crime. Eugène Vidocq was appointed the Sûreté’s first chief, initially with a staff of just eight agents, all of whom, like himself, were ex-convicts with considerable inside knowledge of the criminal underworld.

Vidocq single-handedly invented the concept of undercover policing. In disguise, he would infiltrate a criminal gang, gain their trust, and then reveal his true identity at the crucial moment (often in dramatic ways, if his Memoirs are to be believed) in order to arrest the whole gang red-handed. He was the first person to employ systematic record keeping and scientific methods in his investigations, thereby establishing the science of criminology. He took plaster casts of shoe prints and was probably the first investigator to ask for a bullet to be removed from a body in order to identify the weapon that fired it. One of his favoured strategies was to take a suspect out to dinner, where — over good food and fine wine — the suspect would reveal far more information that could have been obtained in the course of the conventional (and rather less civilised) interrogation techniques of the day.

Even as Head of the Sûreté, Vidocq — forever the loose cannon — often quarrelled with his superiors, usually over his tendency to use “unorthodox” (if not downright illegal) techniques. Eventually the quarrel came to a head: the Sûreté was abolished and immediately re-established with a completely new team of agents. A new head was appointed and Vidocq, in protest, founded the Bureau of Universal Information, a freelance outfit operating in direct competition to the new Sûreté. His enemies in the police (of which there were many) were determined that he should be stopped.

By now, Vidocq’s fame as an investigator had spread overseas. An American publication called Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine published some anonymous short stories under the series title “Unpublished passages in the Life of Monsieur Vidocq, the French Minister of Police”. The editor of Burton’s Magazine was a young, ambitious writer named Edgar Allan Poe, who shortly afterwards published a novel called The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In this novel, a French gentleman named C. Auguste Dupin uses his superior logic and analytical skills to determine who (or rather, what) has been responsible for the violent deaths of a woman and her daughter. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is rightly considered the first modern detective novel.

The manuscript of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Although the two men have contrasting personalities, there can be no doubt that the fictional Dupin was inspired by the real-life Vidocq. However, Dupin is not a professional detective. Indeed, his motivation for investigating the crime is not financial reward, but for the pleasure of solving the puzzle. Dupin may be the prototype of every literary detective since, but without Vidocq, we may never have had Dupin.

Even though Vidocq was exonerated after his final arrest, it had destroyed his reputation and he had no choice but to close the Bureau. As a freelance investigator, he accepted a few minor cases, but troubled by an old injury sustained during one of his prison stints, he gradually slipped into retirement.

Although his techniques were gradually adopted by police forces worldwide, Vidocq never received more than cursory recognition for his contribution to crime investigation. Until recently, even the Sûreté did not recognise him as their founder. He died in 1857 at the age of 82.

Nobody knows where he is buried.


Filed under Fiction, History

Where is Westerby?

That is a difficult question to answer, considering that Westerby is not a real place. Or more to the point, it is not entirely a real place. Just like anything else that you read about in a story (like the characters who resemble people you know without being anyone in particular) Westerby resembles many real seaside towns without actually being any of them.


I’m sure you know the sort of place I’m talking about. The seaside towns with a pier and penny arcades and donkeys on the beach. The ones with shops that apparently survive by selling nothing more than plastic buckets and spades, postcards, ice cream, sticks of seaside rock and various cheap and colourful souvenirs. The towns that are crowded to overflowing on a Bank Holiday Monday, yet are virtual ghost towns on any weekday in February. The places where the children have their fun during the day, and you strongly suspect that the grown ups are having their fun after dark.

Some people might describe Westerby as “seedy” and “down at heel”, and there may be an element of truth in that. Certainly the place is a little past its best, and could do with a lick of paint here and there, but there are those who consider that just a hint of decay and decadence gives the town character. Explore only a short distance from the seafront, and you will find some odd looking bars that make you wonder how they ever managed to obtain a drinks licence. You will certainly be enticed by the smell of deep-fried batter and vinegar from the fish and chip shops, as it mixes with less identifiable odours from restaurants offering exotic, foreign cuisines to tempt the adventurous palate. You will be intrigued by nightclubs that try (but fail) to emulate much classier establishments on the French Riviera – they may only advertise dancing and cocktails, but few people can peek in through the brightly lit doorways without the passing thought that less innocent pleasures may be on offer within.

For where there is temptation, you are likely also to find crime – everything from a card sharp relieving some gullible visitor of a quid or two in a game of “Find the Lady” all the way to extortion and murder. In a town where visitors flow in and out like the tide, a fugitive criminal looking for sanctuary might consider Westerby a suitable place to remain incognito. A drunken brawl that breaks out after the pubs have closed might not be as spontaneous as it first appears. And in the depths of the night, who knows what cargo might be unloaded from a small boat, surreptitiously drawn up on the beach at high tide.

The police try their best to keep on top of it, of course, but there are so many things that they don’t have the time nor the inclination to deal with. So what Westerby really needs is a private detective.

Luckily, it has one…

Five and a Half Tons is to be published by Grey Cells Press (an imprint of Holland House Books) in August, 2013.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Five and a Half Tons, Imaginary Places, Springer

Making Magic (a childhood memory)

When I was at primary school (elementary school, for U.S. readers), every Tuesday afternoon was story time. All the children in my class would sit and listen whilst the teacher read to us from a book. Often, the story was a complete novel, so each Tuesday we would only get one or two chapters and would have to wait until the following week for the next installment. Tuesday afternoon story time was my first encounter with many classic children’s stories, such as The Borrowers and The Secret Garden — but the one that had the biggest impression upon me was one written by a man with an odd sounding surname and what seemed (to me, at least) to be too many initials. The author’s name was J.R.R. Tolkien and the book was called The Hobbit.


The Hobbit lends itself well to episodic telling. One week we were riddling in the dark, another we were outwitting spiders in Mirkwood. Finally we arrived at the Lonely Mountain and Bilbo got a chance to show off his burgling skills. Even at that age (seven or eight) I knew that the Arkenstone wasn’t what was really important, despite Thorin’s obsessive ambition to recover it. What was important was Bilbo standing up for what he believed was right.

But the one thing I remember most clearly was that when Thorin Oakenshield died, I cried.

I don’t mean I was blubbing like a baby — after all, I was brought up to believe that big boys didn’t cry — but I do remember that there were tears in my eyes and I was most definitely feeling upset. Now, Thorin was far from my favourite character, so it seemed strange that his death should have affected me so much. This was the first time I’d been told a story in which one of the “good” characters died, I am certain, but I don’t think that was entirely the reason.

Perhaps it was because Bilbo and Thorin, very much at loggerheads before the Battle of the Five Armies, were finally reconciled  A painful conflict that had threatened to break the company was resolved, but the reconciliation had come too late. I was happy that order had been restored, but sad that Thorin had to die. I had experienced a “bitter sweet” emotion for the first time in my life (although many years would pass before I would discover that was its name).

It is only now, looking back at this incident from the perspective of an adult, that I realise how important this must have been in my development as a writer. Although I didn’t realise it yet, I had discovered that from nothing more than a well-chosen set of words (available from any good dictionary), an author can evoke emotions in a listener or reader that are every bit as strong as emotions experienced in real life. Stronger, perhaps, because a story can provide experiences that a reader is unlikely to encounter in real life. If stories are such wonderful things, then surely being a writer of stories must be the best occupation ever devised.

It is no coincidence that the word “spell” applies both to the process of constructing words correctly and performing magic. For when we spell out words to make a story, we really are making magic.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction