Portrait of Eugène François Vidocq by Achille Devéria
Eugène François Vidocq's life was one that defined the term stranger than fiction. He was a complete troublemaker, stealing and going in and out of prisons from an early age. He was an expert fighter and duelist, a skill he employed in numerous fights, mostly over the women he seduced. He traveled with troupes of players, puppeteers, and gypsies at various times in his life, served in the army, and worked in prison gangs. But what he's most well-known for is his role as the world's first private detective.
To get out of prison, Vidocq agreed to spy on criminals for the French police. When he got out, he organized his own plainclothes police unit called the Brigade de Sûreté, the first undercover police force. Basically Vidocq hired criminals to spy on other criminals, a venture that was wildly successful. Under a writ of Napoleon, the brigade became a state police unit called the Sûreté Nationale--which still exists today--with Vidocq as its first director.
Vidocq trained his agents in fighting, including martial arts; the use of disguises, which he himself often employed; profiling the personalities and habits of criminals; and applying the scientific method to cases. It was said he had a photographic memory and could recall the face of every criminal he ever came across. Not expecting his agents to have the same skill, however, he set up the first police record system that contained information on a criminal's physical description, modus operandi, handwriting samples, etc. He was also the first person to employ ballistics in an investigation. He consulted directly in the establishment of Scotland Yard, and the FBI later adapted many of his methods.
After a regime change in France that temporarily disbanded the Sûreté, Vidocq opened a paper company, hoping to capitalize on a new chemical process he invented to prevent check fraud. There he employed mostly criminals and indigents. The business went under, and Vidocq's next venture was to open le bureau des renseignements, the first private detective agency. However, in order to catch criminals, Vidocq himself often engaged in criminal activity, which frequently landed him in prison. Fortunately for Vidocq, he now had powerful friends who influenced the court to get most of the cases against him either thrown out or overturned.
With a history like that (not to mention his friendship with several of France's greatest writers, including Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas, all of whom plumbed his life story for their own work), is it any wonder that his biography became fodder for numerous novels? Even if you've never heard of Eugène François Vidocq, chances are you're familiar with at least one of his literary incarnations:
- The Memoirs of Vidocq (1828)--After Vidocq wrote his memoirs, his writer friends Balzac, Hugo, and Dumas, told him it was too short and needed work. The memoirs were eventually published with considerable reworking by a ghostwriter. One could say they're the books that started it all. [Project Gutenberg]
- Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1835)--Balzac modeled many characters after Vidocq, most obviously Vautrin, which was Vidocq's nickname as a teenager. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)--In what is considered the first mystery, Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin, uses logic and abductive reasoning to solve crimes. Poe is known to have read stories of the life of Vidocq in Burton's Gentleman Magazine, and Dupin employs the same unique techniques Vidocq espoused. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
- The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue (1842)--Despite the title, this is a French version of the Victorian sensational novel, and has nothing to do with the mystery genre per se. However, the main character of Rodolphe displays similar traits to that of Vidocq, being a good fighter, yet sympathetic and kind to the poor. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)--Vidocq is mentioned admirably here, supposedly. He's also mentioned in White Jacket. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
- Les Mohicans de Paris by Alexandre Dumas (1854)--Here the character of Monsieur Jackal was inspired by Vidocq. [available at Internet Archive]
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860)--The fugitive in this novel was inspired by Vidocq's real-life exploits. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
- Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)--Hugo and Vidocq were close friends, and BOTH of the main characters in Les Mis--Jean Valjean and Police Inspector Javert--were modeled after after different roles Vidocq took on during the course of his life. Not only characters, but whole scenes and chapters in Les Mis mirror Vidocq's experiences, particularly in prison. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
- Monsieur Lecoq by Emile Gaboriau (1868)--Gaboriau's detective is the head of the Sûreté, just as Vidocq himself was, and employs similar methods of detection based on science and logic. [Project Gutenberg|Librivox]
Do you know of anyone else who inspired so many different characters?