book-reviews

Memoirs of Vidocq: Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827

by Eugene Francois Vidocq (tr. unknown)

Rating: ★★★

This is a strange sort of memoir. In part, I think, this is because Vidocq's life was a strange and fantastical thing, and whatever embellishment there might be in his own account of it, even the bare bones of his biography is difficult to believe. He was a soldier, a prisoner, a criminal, a businessman, a spy, a chief of police, a publisher and an author. He arrested thousands of criminals, and later employed a significant number of them.

Some housekeeping. Vidocq first published his Memoirs in four volumes, of which the item I read was a collection in translation (The translator of this version seems to be unknown). Vidocq finished writing in January 1828, before handing the manuscripts over to an editor-cum-ghostwriter of sorts, who Vidocq alleges mangled the first and second volumes, producing a difference in style between those and the latter, which Vidocq edited himself. Frankly, his account of the publication process is confusing and hard to believe, which sort of sets the tone.

Vidocq begins with his early life, in which he was a violent and unruly child, eventually fleeing home to join the circus, after which he leaves to join a puppet show (where he sleeps with the puppeteer's wife), becomes a merchant's assistant, then joins the army, fights a bunch of soldiers in duels, helps a friend escape prison, becomes a corporal, gets court-martialled, escapes, rejoins as a cavalryman, goes to war, is found as a deserter, goes over to the Austrians (on the other side of the war), becomes a duelling instructor there, eventually deserts again (he deserts both sides of this war at least three times)... Tired yet? Yeah, that was just Chapter 1. Of 78.

The narrative does settle down a little, and in fact becomes somewhat repetitive. Vidocq eventually finds himself imprisoned, for reasons I cannot now really recall (I think he was there for desertion, and then got embroiled in someone else's attempt at forging a pardon), and this sets up the script for approximately the first half of the collected volume: Vidocq is imprisoned, becomes either feared or loved by his fellow-prisoners, guards, etc., effects an escape (by means as diverse as jumping out of a window, digging a tunnel, disguising himself -- a large, intimidating man -- as a woman), and then eludes the authorities across France for some time, finding himself some new and possibly criminal employment before bad fortune finally catches up with him and he is again apprehended. Vidocq has no qualms about spinning out these stories to great length. In one notable chapter, where we set out with Vidocq helping a drunk companion find his way to a brothel, the story does not end until months later, having covered police raids, pirates, sea voyages, shipwreck and mutiny.

The movement in the narrative comes slowly, but it is appreciated when it does arrive. Vidocq from quite early on professes a distaste for spending time with criminals, because it brutalises him -- it is in prison that he learns many of his more disreputable skills, and becomes entangled with characters who will pull him down in the outside world. He does not cease to escape prison, and accumulates something of a reputation for his abilities in that regard, but his exploits become slowly bent more toward him finding gainful employment of some kind -- under a false identity, usually. This comes to its head when, having met and married the woman he would call his wife at the time of publication, and running a warehouse business with some success, he finds himself entrapped by three ex-cons who extort him with the threat of reporting him to the police. He is eventually captured again, and this time he resolves on another way out: working for the police.

This begins roughly the third quarter of the collected volume: Vidocq the spy and policeman. He demonstrates his worth in prison by reporting on the particulars of crimes he extracts from fellows there -- a dangerous occupation he manages to carry off because of his own celebrity amongst criminals (and his general-purpose social engineering skills). He is then permitted to 'escape' and runs for a while in Paris amongst the criminals, helping police find the more notorious of such. This sort of 'setting a thief' was, it later becomes clear, the S.O.P for French authorities of the day. Vidocq protests rather strongly that he never did what most of said agents did, and entrap thieves by leading them to commit a particular crime and then catching them in the act of it. Make of that what you will.

Vidoqc is rather too effective, however, and quickly raises the ire of the thieves and policemen both, by catching the former more effectively than the latter. He becomes head of the Bureau de Suretie, a sort of public-safety police. This gives rise to the new script for a significant proportion of the Memoirs, which is Vidocq in disguise engineering himself into the good graces of some criminals, being invited along to commit crime with them, sending warning to the police, passing time with the criminals by drinking and talking about that 'damned Vidoqc', and then arresting them in the act while he was meant to be standing watch. These accounts lose the strict chronology of the earlier half of the book, so the sequence of events becomes somewhat confused.

The final quarter of the Memoirs goes decidedly off-script. Vidoqc promises us that he will provide a reveal of the entirety of the operations of the police, but quite conspicuously fails to do that -- a note in the appendices of this version suggests this might be down to interventions from his successor in office, who if so somehow failed to notice all of Vidocq's unflattering references to him personally. Instead, Vidocq regales us with a sort of typology of criminals, according to the names they use themselves to delineate their trade, and punctuates this with some stories of example criminals. One of these, the story of Adele, is notable for its social commentary -- Vidocq points out the measures that extreme poverty can force people to, in an undoubtedly fictional but imaginative biography over several chapters.

The concluding note, however, is strangely limp. The actual autobiography petered out well before the end of the text, and if it were not for the editorial notes you would not even understand that Vidocq left his office in Paris. The criminal typology is interesting, but hardly a memoir, and seems almost spun out to fill an engagement with a bookseller. The mystery, frustratingly, seems unanswered.

For those looking to read of Vidocq's life, this is not necessarily a good source. To be true, a great deal of detail is preserved about his early exploits, but the verity of these accounts is open to question -- certainly the unnamed Translator catches him in a fabrication regarding one account of London, with which Vidocq was obviously unfamiliar -- and there is very little material about Vidocq's later life, which seems to have been when all his most notable accomplishments took place. The establishment of the French National Police, and the first detective agency, are all beyond these memoirs' timeframe. The memoirs are probably best read for entertainment value, where the exact truth is less important than the adventure, occasional wit, and rare glimpses of social commentary.