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’Tis Vidocq!

An ex-convict who founded the Sûreté in 1811 and whose fame rivalled Napoleon’s even while Napoleon was still alive, the master sleuth Eugène François Vidocq, at the height of his renown, published his Memoirs in 1828, thus arousing more adulation than ever. The first star cop had written a classic book. Vidocq’s assertive personality declares itself on the first page.

I was born at Arras. My continual disguises, the flexibility of my features, and a singular power of grimacing having cast some doubt concerning my age, it will not be deemed superfluous to declare here that I was brought into the world on the 23rd of July, 1775, in a house adjoining that in which Robespierre was born sixteen years before. I had a most robust constitution, and there was plenty of me, so that as soon as I was born they took me for a child of two years of age, and I soon gave tokens of that athletic figure, that colossal form, which have since struck terror into the most hardened and powerful ruffians.

Vidocq’s superabundance of energy quickly proves to be more than Arras can contain. His flexible features and singular powers of grimacing, combined with a weakness for young ladies and a remarkable capacity to steal from his mother’s purse, soon land him in trouble. The revolutionary guillotine is still busy but Vidocq manages to get himself sent to prison instead. Supplied with a disguise by his girlfriend Françoise, Vidocq makes the first of many escapes. ‘I passed, one day, muffled up, by the sentry: who, taking me for a municipal officer, presented arms.’ It is to be a continuing theme in Vidocq’s career, that even the people who know him most intimately completely fail to recognise him when he puts on a disguise. Misled by the flexibility of his features and his singular power of grimacing, they address him as a stranger and engage him in a conversation which, to his secret amusement and without his prompting, invariably turns to the subject of Vidocq and his awesome capabilities.

But most of that happens later. First Vidocq has to be recaptured many times, amounting to a grand total always exceeding by one the number of his escapes. Inevitably he is sentenced to the galleys. Loaded down with fetters and manacles, Vidocq’s colossal form is temporarily immobilised, but his power of grimacing luckily remains unimpaired. Having somehow procured sailor’s garb, he puts it on under his galley-frock and trousers. But how to pass inspection? ‘They examined, as usual, our manacles and clothing; knowing this practice, I had pasted over my sailor’s garb a bladder painted flesh-colour.’ The guards having been fooled by the bladder — which must have made his colossal form even more colossal, but presumably he distracted their attention with some singularly powerful grimacing — Vidocq ducks behind a stack of planks.

‘I soon threw off my galley-frock and trousers, and put on a wig.’ He doesn’t mention that he removed the bladder, but no doubt he did so, otherwise it would have looked pretty weird in combination with the wig. Nor should the question delay us of how one puts on a sailor suit under a prison outfit without having first removed one’s manacles. Others abide our question: Vidocq is free. ‘I disappeared, cautiously gliding behind the piles of timber.’ Gliding is something Vidocq is destined to do a lot of. For a big man, he moves noiselessly.

But not noiselessly enough to avoid being nabbed yet again. Busted back to the galleys, he rapidly escapes, finding sanctuary among robbers. ‘They all exclaimed: “’Tis Vidocq!” They surrounded and congratulated me.’ Still at an early stage of his brilliant career, before he had even begun the fateful transformation from poacher to game-keeper, Vidocq already exemplified the essential conundrum posed by all his famous successors up to and including Charlie’s Angels — though extremely recognisable, he was also invisible. ‘’Tis Vidocq!’ they cried, but when he wanted to he could pass unnoticed, eking out with a few tufts of hair his power of grimacing. Somehow his opponents never latched on to the possibility that the colossally formed individual who had joined their company unbidden was at least reasonably likely to be Vidocq in disguise, just as no gang of heavies in recent American history has ever been disturbed by the sudden appearance in their immediate environment of three glamorous young women dressed up as firemen, road-menders, etc.

On the run, Vidocq hears voices whispering at the door. ‘“He is a powerful man,” said one; “we must be wary!”’ Who else can they mean but Vidocq? A note having been concealed in a pie (‘Be careful of yourself, and trust no one’), the agents are fooled. But not even Vidocq can run for ever. Collared again, he is offered remission if he turns around. ‘I was no less famed for courage than for skill, and it was the general opinion that I was capable of any deed of renown in case of need.’ In simpler words, Vidocq had decided to turn stoolie.

As the resident fink of the galleys, Vidocq has merely to sit there while the criminals, awed by his fame, rush to unburden themselves of their secrets.

Not a robber arrived at LaForce, who did not hasten to seek my company, even if he had never seen me, to give himself consequence in the eyes of his comrades; it fed his self-love to appear to be on terms of intimacy with me. I encouraged this singular vanity, and thus insensibly made many discoveries; information came to me in abundance.

Information is a big word with Vidocq. He was the first man to realise that in the modern age inside knowledge would constitute the only reliable meal-ticket. Vidocq the thief-taker was a data-bank dressed up. In the Memoirs he understandably stressed the flexibility of his features, but what really gave him the bulge over his rivals was the retentiveness of his brain, which later on he buttressed with a card-index.

As a cop, Vidocq was a roaring success from the start. Soon he was ready for the big time: Paris, where his name struck terror in the vicinity of the rue des Mauvais-Garçons. Not only was Vidocq infinitely malleable as to his facial structure, he had the physical endurance to conceal himself under beds or in small cupboards for days on end. At the right moment, he would suddenly employ his most devastating technique, the vigorous dart forwards. ‘I made a vigorous dart forwards, and seized him by the hair of his head.’ Thus many a hardened desperado was sent back where he belonged.

I was fortunate enough to send back to the galleys a considerable number of those individuals whom justice, for want of the necessary proofs for their conviction, might have let loose upon society.

Vidocq, the Dirty Harry of his day, was the first rogue cop in history, and as such was duly loathed by the regulars. They had a lot to be envious of. In addition to his physical prowess, Vidocq had the divinatory capacity of a seer. How did he suss the criminal propensities of the notorious knife-wielder Boudin? ‘He was bow-legged: a deformity I have observed amongst several systematic assassins, as well as amongst many other individuals distinguished by their crimes.’ Much later in his career, Vidocq might have been ready to deepen this insight by pointing out — as he was among the first to do — that most criminals sprang from the undernourished orders, and that cruel punishments tended to create a permanent criminal class. But at this stage he was still on the make, and ambition likes to keep things simple.

Onward went Vidocq, ever deeper into the low-life purlieus later flattened by the city planning of Haussmann, but still darkly pullulating in our hero’s heyday. Having infiltrated himself into the nefarious presence of the hoodlum Guevive (‘I accordingly provided myself with a suitable disguise’), Vidocq does the mandatory sitting around while the unsuspecting Guevive expatriates on the familiar subject of a certain secret agent’s genius for camouflage.

‘God bless you!’ cried he, ‘it is easy to perceive you are a stranger to this vagabond Vidocq. Just imagine, now, that he is never to be seen twice in the same dress; that he is in the morning perhaps just such another looking person as you; well, the next hour so altered that his own brother could not recognise him, and by the evening, I defy any man to remember ever having seen him before. Only yesterday I met him disguised in a manner that would have deceived any eye but mine.’

Vidocq relishes Guevive’s misdirected encomiums for several pages before flinging off his disguise and making the vigorous dart forwards.

Rising steadily in the estimation of his police chief, M. Henry, Vidocq is given what amounts to a free hand. ‘Soon M. Henry took no steps without consulting me.’ M. Henry’s trust proved well founded, because Vidocq’s next feat was to bust the notorious Madame Noël, the Music Mistress of the Marais, a piano-playing putative ex-aristocrat equipped with ‘that indescribable air of superiority which the reverses of fortune can never entirely destroy’. Barely able to conceal his affection even in retrospect, Vidocq evokes Madame Noël as:

a little brunette, whose sparkling eye and roguish look were softened down by that gentle demeanour which seemed to increase the sweetness of her smile and the tone of her voice, which was in the highest degree musical. There was a mixture of the angel and demon in her face, but the latter perhaps preponderated; for time had developed those traits which characterise evil thoughts.

It was Bulldog Drummond versus Irma Peterson, but in the long run there could be only one winner. The victory went to the possessor of the more adaptable physiognomy.

My hair ... was dyed black, as well as my beard, after it had attained a growth of eight days; to embrown my countenance I washed it with walnut liquor; and to perfect the imitation, I garnished my upper lip thickly with a kind of coffee-grounds, which I plastered on by means of gum arabic.

Thus transmogrified, Vidocq glides into Madame Noël’s fragrant vicinity.

In my quality of a newcomer, I excited all Madame Noël’s compassion and solicitude, and she attended to nothing but me. ‘Are you known to Vidocq and his two bull-dogs, Levesque and Compère?’ she enquired. ‘Alas! yes,’ was my reply; ‘they have caught me twice.’ ‘In that case, then, be on your guard. Vidocq is often disguised; he assumes characters, costumes, and shapes to get hold of unfortunates like yourself.’

Vidocq would have had to restrain himself from smiling at this, for fear of dislodging the coffee-grounds.

But if Madame Noël excited Vidocq’s compassion, the vile Fossard merited no mercy. A crook of rare alertness, Fossard required to be snuck up on. Never was Vidocq’s gliding ability put to a more severe test, especially when you consider that he was now accompanied by a growing entourage of helpers — one of the more obvious penalties of success. ‘The denouement was near at hand. I made all my party take off their shoes, doing the same myself, that we might not be heard whilst going up stairs.’ Fossard was caught with his culottes down.

At the same instant, with more rapidity than the lion’s when darting on his prey, I threw myself upon Fossard; who, stupefied by what was going on, was fast bound and confined in his bed before he could make a single movement, or utter a single word. When a light was brought and he saw my black face, and garb of a coalman, he experienced such an increase of terror that I really believe he imagined himself in the devil’s clutches.

Vidocq’s triumph being by now complete, M. Henry had no alternative but to give him his own department, soon to be famous as the Sûreté. Vidcoq does not mention in the Memoirs that the Sûreté’s funding was handed to him as a lump sum, with the choice of assistants, and their emolument, left to his discretion. This may well have been the basis of the large fortune with which Vidocq later retired from the service. Nor is it beyond possibility that people paid him to look the other way. But there is no telling — certainly not by Vidocq. Expansive on all other topics, he was hazy about the source of his wealth.

Wealth, however, was a side issue. The central issue was fame. ‘The name of Vidocq had become popular, and many persons identified me as the person thus known.’ Vidocq was among the first to experience the now familiar fact that publicity is limiting. A Rommel rather than a von Rundstedt, Vidocq was always out there in the forward areas, thirsty for battle. It was his drawback — you must grow with your fame or be diminished by it — but it was also his destiny. The celebrated affair of the thief Sablin (‘a man of almost gigantic stature’) is a case in point. Sablin knew Vidocq from the old days in the galleys and was thus hard to approach, however flexibly one’s features were arranged. But Vidocq did one of his renowned long waits. ‘I resolved, in spite of the rain, to pass the night before his house. At break of day, the door being opened, I glided quickly into the house.’ Gliding in saturated boots is not easy: Vidocq’s feet must have been under the same tight control as his face. Sablin’s pregnant wife, however, is on the qui vive. ‘“Here is Vidocq!”’ But Vidocq presses on inexorably. ‘A man was in bed. He raised his head, ’twas Sablin! I flung myself upon him, and before he could recognise me I had handcuffed him.’

Pausing only to deliver the thug’s wife of her baby (‘I immediately took off my coat, and in less than twenty-five minutes Madame Sablin was delivered’), Vidocq melts into the night, but is later gratified to hear that Sablin, touched by his adversary’s moral example, has had a change of heart. ‘In spite of the vexation which Sablin necessarily experienced, he was so deeply penetrated by my proceedings that he could not forbear testifying his gratitude.’

Vidocq’s success had aroused so much envy that his days at the Sûreté were numbered: while he was out there gliding about and making vigorous darts forwards, the place-men were plotting his downfall. But he had one more triumph to come, and in the Memoirs he makes sure it gets pride of place, right at the end: the story of how Vidocq entrapped the scoundrels who stabbed the harmless tradesman Fontaine twenty-eight times with a short dagger. Actually the dagger was so short that Fontaine survived, but Vidocq was implacable on the trail.

Having snared some of the minor figures in the tragedy, Vidocq sweats them to find the ringleader. He employs subterfuge. ‘“You are not naturally bad fellows,” said I to them; “I’ll engage that you have been led into all this by some scoundrel or other; why not own it?”’ Unmanned by Vidocq's overmastering sympathy, the heavies finger their leader, the homicidal Pons Gérard. ‘“I must warn you,”’ says one of the now contrite goons, ‘“that he is not to be caught napping. If you surprise him he will make a desperate resistance.”’ Has even Vidocq got what it takes to go up against Pons Gérard?

All the inhabitants to whom I spoke of Pons Gérard described him to me as a robber, who subsisted only by fraud and rapine; his very name was sufficient to excite universal terror, and the authorities of the place, although daily furnished with proofs of his enormities, durst take no steps to repress them.

The authorities might not durst, but Vidocq dursts. Unpredictably abandoning all recourse to flexible features, powerful grimacing, the rain-soaked glide and the vigorous dart forwards, Vidocq essays the frontal approach.

I walked directly up to the individual whom I supposed to be Gérard, and embracing him with every demonstration of regard, exclaimed, ‘Pons, my good fellow, how are you? How is your wife, and all your family? Quite well, I trust?’

Apparently Pons was paralysed.

Astonished at this unexpected salutation, Pons remained in silent examination of my face for some minutes; ‘Devil take me,’ said he at last, ’if I know who or what you are; where the deuce did you spring from?’

Pons, like all France, is fully aware of Vidocq’s existence, but somehow has no clue what Vidocq looks like. Perhaps Pons has never seen the engravings, but more probably he has been bamboozled by the fact that Vidocq has fronted straight up to him, instead of gliding in out of the downpour or vigorously darting forwards after two weeks in the broom cupboard. ‘“But who is this Vidocq, of whom we hear so much?”’ asks Pons conversationally. ‘“I have never been able to meet him face to face.”’

This, for Vidocq, must have been the supreme moment. ‘“Bless you, it is easy enough to meet with him,” replied I; “you may have that pleasure now, for I am Vidocq, and I arrest you!”’ It is the climax of Vidocq’s career and almost the end of Pons’s life. ‘The astonishment of Pons defied description.’ But it doesn’t defy Vidocq’s prose.

Every feature appeared distorted, his eyes starting from their sockets, his cheeks quivering, his teeth chattered, and his hair stood on end. After his arms were fastened, he remained for nearly half an hour motionless, as though petrified.

The book ends there. Vidocq had two ghosts to help him write it but there is no reason to doubt that the tone is all his. By the time it was published, Vidocq was a more popular figure than ever, but he was out of a job. Under the Bourbon restoration the regular cops were thought of as more seemly. He got 24,000 francs for the Memoirs. In addition he started up his own information agency, having correctly guessed that the age he had helped bring to an end — when a criminal could stay free if he kept moving — would be succeeded by a new era in which, wherever you fled, your dossier would get there ahead of you.

Vidocq was a social lion, but on borrowed time. Balzac put him in La Comédie humaine under the name of Vautrin and wrote a play in which Vautrin was played by the great Frédérick Lemaître. The play was a flop. So, eventually, was Vidocq, who like many talented men failed to realise how business requires a talent of its own: He lived out his days as a novelist and a loan-shark. The Second Empire was the kind of police state he had helped make possible, but he did not flourish under it. He made himself ridiculous by pestering the police agencies with help they did not want. It is one of the rules of fame: the innovator must get out early. He can take credit for the world his innovations help to bring about, but he should not compete in it. Yet Vidocq was already immortal when he died in 1857. Eleven women came to the funeral, each clutching a different version of his will. All the super-sleuths since have glided in his footsteps, changed their appearance according to parameters established by his power of grimacing, made the pinch in a pale echo of his vigorous dart forwards. The first man through takes the long glory.

Observer Magazine, 12 December, 1982