The One with the French Sherlock Holmes Next Door

Emile Gaboriau, Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles (1876) – The Little Old Man of Batignolles

Back in July I read this very slim novel by the pioneer of detective fiction, Emile Gaboriau. It was supposed to be a middle grade book for kids at school, so there were lots of footnotes on context and vocabulary, but it read quite well. I read it on a whim because I live in the neighborhood of Batignolles, where the victim is found dead. I would have loved to find a description of the place, but the book took it for granted and rather focused on the characters.

In 1867 Gaboriau created Lecoq, a policeman interested in criminal psychology and in scientific methods of investigation, who is supposed to be a strong inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, created just 20 years later.

I could see the parallel between the two heroes, two men with an acute sense of observation, a bit eccentric (Lecoq a lot less so than Holmes), proud, self-assured and aloof in the self-awareness of their unique approach. They both have a sidekick, the narrator, who looks bewildered on the sidelines ( Lecoq’s neighbor in the present case). They both see the truth when other policemen and judges all fall for the red herring.

But the link between Lecoq and Holmes remains thin and there’s no denying that Conan Doyle created a completely original hero. [That’s one reason why it took me so long to post about this book. I thought I’d muster the courage / energy to make a proper comparison grounded in fact and literary analysis. My November self is laughing at my July self so hard. Nah, sorry, not gonna happen. You’re stuck with my gut feelings, and keep in mind that they might well be wrong. Caveat : I’m a huge Sherlock fan so nobody could ever hold the candle to him. ]

Where Holmes feels upper class to me (maybe it’s only the British BBC accent and the fact that I grew up watching Jeremy Brett playing Sherlock), Lecoq is an employee, firmly middle-class. He has a nice wife who worries about his husband’s job. And he’s so weirdly defensive, where Holmes would just shrug it off!

I am one of those lost sentinels of civilization,  losing sleep and risking my life, I keep society safe and I should blush of that? That would be a hoot. You’d say there are against us policemen lots of stupid prejudices inherited from the past. I don’t care!

The book is still highly readable and the mystery is alright (by which I mean that you couldn’t guess immediately the solution, but don’t expect too much, that’s 1876 after all). It certainly is more of an interesting read when you compare it with modern or classic mysteries.

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