Monsieur Lecoq:
Emile Gaboriau's
Master Detective in
File No. 113
(Le Dossier 113)

by Drew R. Thomas

After writing The Widow Lerouge, which featured Pere Tabaret as a master detective, Emile Gaboriau raised Monsieur Lecoq to prominence as the detective in several books. But although Tabaret retired from his role, Monsieur Lecoq still thinks of him with high regard, as the following passage shows:

"Now I have it!" he cried; "now I have it! Why did I not see it at once? These words have all been cut from a prayer-book. We will look, at least, and then we shall be certain."

He moistened one of the words pasted on the paper with his tongue, and, when it was sufficiently softened, he detached it with a pin. On the other side of this word was printed a Latin word, Deus.

"Ah, ha," he said with a little laugh of satisfaction. "I knew it. Father Taberet would be pleased to see this."

The first book to feature Lecoq as the master detective was Le Dossier 113 (1867) (or, in English, File No. 113). It describes Lecoq as "...a middle-aged man of rather distinguished appearance, who wore a white cravat and gold spectacles.... This man, treated with all the deference due to a chief, was no less a personage than M. Lecoq, a celebrated member of the detective corps."

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As we learn more about Lecoq, the influence from Poe and, in return, upon future detective, crime, and murder mystery books becomes evident:

  • Lecoq is a master of disguise. One disguise is that of Verduret, occasionally referred to as "the fat man" in the narrative. In one instance, Verduret dresses as a clown (so Lecoq's disguise dons a second disguise).
  • One of the novel's characters fears strychnine/poison more than the assassin's knife. Lecoq says "I have studied up on poisons." (Sherlock Holmes was described by Dr. Watson as "well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally" in A Study in Scarlet.)
  • Lecoq, in disguise as Verduret, uses detective Fanferlot as his agent to create a diversion. (Poe's detective the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin had agents create a diversion in "The Purloined Letter"; Doyle had Holmes employ agents to create a diversion in "A Scandal in Bohemia.")
  • Lecoq employs other agents, as well. (Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey were among a number of later detectives who used agents.)

As he did in The Widow Lerouge, Gaboriau makes biblical and literary allusions, such as:

  • A story about one character is reminiscent of the story of Jacob and Esau.
  • A somewhat mixed metaphor refers to the city of Paris as "the promised land ... where ever Alladin finds a lamp." "There all ambitions are crowned, all dreams realized, all passions, all desires, good and evil, can be satisfied."
  • "He [Louis] thought that in this great, rich city, he certainly could succeed in seizing a share of the loaves and fishes."
  • A character says to another, "I wish you were as poor as Job."

There is also an abundance of aphorisms and memorable quotes, including:

  • To prevent his client from acting prematurely, Lecoq tells him, "Vengeance is a delicious fruit, that must ripen in order that we may fully enjoy it."
  • A criminal preparing to engage in criminal activity says, "Fortune is not to be wasted on idle fools."
  • "Fools sit down and wait for an opportunity; sensible men make one."
  • "It is useless to deny that evil examples are pernicious to morals. The most upright characters are unconsciously influenced by bad surroundings."
  • "A man can shine in the second rank, who would be totally eclipsed in the first." (So says Lecoq.)
  • "'Honor among thieves' seldom hold true after division of spoils...."
  • "To false situations there but is one safe issue: truth."
  • "Louis, like all villains, was ever ready to attribute to others the bad motives by which he himself would be influenced."
  • "Louis never once during the night closed his eyes." (Earlier the narrative said, "Being accustomed to danger, it never kept him awake." Now, however, his fear or knowledge that things are closing in seem to be affecting him.)
  • Raoul says, "I have never been rich enough to be honest." Later, Louis says to Raoul, "Now that you are rich you can afford to be honest."
  • "M. Verduret thought over the various cases similar to this, but not one of his former expedients could be applied to the present circumstances."
  • "Self-sufficient and vain, like all famous men, M. Lecoq had never had a pupil, and never wished to have one. He worked alone, because he hated assistants, wishing to share neither the pleasures of success nor the pain of defeat."
  • "Adding to what he already knew... he had worked up a complete case, and could now act upon a chain of evidence without a missing link."
  • M. Verduret [Lecoq in disguise] curiously watched these two enemies, with the indifference and coolness of a philosopher, who, in the most violent outbursts of human passion, merely sees subjects for meditation and study."

Memorable dialogue occurs throughout, also, as the following brief excerpts demonstrate:

"But, monsieur, appearances----"

"It is precisely against appearances that we must be on our guard. Always distrust them. A suspicion, false or just, is always based on something."

Another exchange of dialogue:

"The death took place so opportunely----"

"That anybody would be convinced of foul play. That is true; but chance is sometimes a wonderful accomplice in crime."

A third brief exchange:

"Monsieur," said Prosper when the porter had left the room, "do you still think you see a woman's hand in this affair?"

"More than ever; and a pious woman too, and a woman who has two prayer-books, since she could cut up one to write to you."

Other characters include:

  • The judge, M. Patrigent, who is described as "an honest man"
  • Fanferlot, known as "the squirrel," a detective who is ambitious but without genius
  • Auguste Prosper Bertomy. The accused. Bertomy "was not the man he appeared to be.... This haughty, correct gentleman had ardent passions and a fiery temperament."
  • Agents who aid Monsieur Lecoq in his investigations.
  • Suspects.

Lecoq: Master of Disguise

In an early passage, Lecoq says to Prosper, "Courage, M. Prosper Bertomy.... if you are innocent, there are those who will help you." Then Lecoq disappears. Gaboriau writes:

Prosper started with surprise, and was about to reply, when the man disappeared.

"Who is that gentleman?" he asked of the policeman.

"Is it possible that you don't know him?" replied the policeman with surprise. "Why, it is M. Lecoq, of the police service."

"You say his name is Lecoq?"

"You might as well say 'monsieur,'" said the offended policeman; "it would not burn your mouth. M. Lecoq is a man who knows everything that he wants to know, without its ever being told to him. If you had had him, instead of that smooth-tongued imbecile Fanferlot, your case would have been settled long ago. Nobody is allowed to waste time when he has command. But he seems to be a friend of yours."

"I never saw him until the first day I came here."

"You can't swear to that, because no one can boast of knowing the real face of M. Lecoq. It is one thing to-day, and another to-morrow; sometimes he is a dark man, sometimes a fair one, sometimes quite young, and then an octogenarian: why, not seldom he even deceives me. I begin to talk to a stranger, paf! the first thing I know, it is M. Lecoq! Anybody on the face of the earth might be he. If I were told that you were he, I should say, 'It is very likely.' Ah! he can convert himself into any shape and form he chooses. He is a wonderful man!"

The constable would have continued forever his praises of M. Lecoq, had not the sight of the judge's door put an end to them.

Shortly later we see Monsieur Lecoq in his office:

In the middle of a large room curiously furnished, half library and half green room, was seated at a desk the same person with gold spectacles, who had said to Prosper at the police-office, "Have courage."... This was M. Lecoq in his official character.

Another passage shows Lecoq in action:

In the twinkling of an eye he had divested himself of the appearance of a police officer. He took off his stiff cravat and gold spectacles, and removed the close wig from his thick black hair. The official Lecoq had disappeared, leaving in his place the genuine Lecoq whom nobody knew--a handsome young man, with a bold, determined manner, and brilliant, piercing eyes.

But he only remained himself for an instant. Seated before a dressing-table covered with more cosmetics, paints, perfumes, false hair, and other unmentionable shams, than are to be found on the toilet-tables of our modern belles, he began to undo the work of nature, and make himself a new face.

He worked slowly, handling his brushes with great care. But in an hour he had accomplished one of his daily masterpieces. When he had finished, he was no longer Lecoq: he was the large gentleman with red whiskers, whom Fanferlot had failed to recognize.

Lecoq Mentors Fanferlot

At one point, Fanferlot's wife advises him to consult M. Lecoq, and Fanferlot does so.

Unfortunately for poor Fanferlot, M. Lecoq was always fully informed on every subject in which he interested himself.

"It seems to me, Master Squirrel, that you have forgotten something. How far did you follow the empty coach?"

Fanferlot blushed, and hung his head like a guilty school-boy.

"Oh, patron!" he cried, "and you know about that too! How could you have----"

But a sudden idea flashed across his brain: he stopped short, bounded off his chair, and cried:

"Oh! I know now: you were the large gentleman with red whiskers."

His surprise gave so singular an expression to his face that M. Lecoq could not restrain a smile.

"Then it was you," continued the bewildered detective; "you were the large gentleman at whom I stared, so as to impress his appearance upon my mind, and I never recognized you! Patron, you would make a superb actor, if you would go on the stage; but I was disguised, too--very well disguised."

"Very poorly disguised; it is only just to you that I should let you know what a failure it was, Fanferlot. Do you think that a heavy beard and a blouse are a sufficient transformation? The eye is the thing to be changed--the eye! The art lies in being able to change the eye. That is the secret."

This theory of disguise explained why the lynx-eyed Lecoq never appeared at the police-office without his gold spectacles.

Lecoq mentors Fanferlot as he works through a problem at the scene of a crime:

"Do you know who the thief is, patron?"

"I know no more than you do, Fanferlot; and you seem to have made up your mind, whereas I am still undecided. You declare the cashier to be innocent, and the banker guilty. I don't know whether you are right or wrong. I started after you, and have only reached the preliminaries of my search. I am certain of but one thing, and that is, that a scratch was on the safe-door. That scratch is my starting-point."

As he spoke, M. Lecoq took from his desk and unrolled an immense sheet of drawing-paper.

On this paper was photographed the door of M. Fauvel's safe. The impression of every detail was perfect. There were the five movable buttons with the engraved letters, and the narrow, projecting brass lock: The scratch was indicated with great exactness.

"Now," said M. Lecoq, "here is our scratch. It runs from top to bottom, starting from the hole of the lock, diagonally, and, observe, from left to right; that is to say, it terminates on the side next to the private staircase leading to the banker's apartments. Although very deep at the key-hole, it ends off in a scarcely perceptible mark."

"Yes, patron, I see all that."

"Naturally you thought that this scratch was made by the person who took the money. Let us see if you were right. I have here a little iron box, painted with green varnish like M. Fauvel's safe; here it is. Take a key, and try to scratch it."

"The deuce take it!" he said after several attempts, "this paint is awfully hard to move!"

"Very hard, my friend, and yet that on the safe is still harder and thicker. So you see the scratch you discovered could not have been made by the trembling hand of a thief letting the key slip."

"Sapristi!" exclaimed Fanferlot, stupefied: "I never should have thought of that. It certainly required great force to make the deep scratch on the safe."

"Yes, but how was that force employed? I have been racking my brain for three days, and only yesterday did I come to a conclusion. Let us examine together, and see if our conjectures present enough chances of probability to establish a starting-point."

M. Lecoq abandoned the photograph, and, walking to the door communicating with his bedroom, took the key from the lock, and, holding it in his hand, said:

"Come here, Fanferlot, and stand by my side: there; very well. Now suppose that I want to open this door, and you don't want me to open it; when you see me about to insert the key, what would be your first impulse?"

"To put my hands on your arm, and draw it toward me so as to prevent your introducing the key."

"Precisely so. Now let us try it; go on." Fanferlot obeyed; and the key held by M. Lecoq, pulled aside from the lock, slipped along the door, and traced upon it a diagonal scratch, from top to bottom, the exact reproduction of the one in the photograph.

"Oh, oh, oh!" exclaimed Fanferlot in three different tones of admiration, as he stood gazing in a reverie at the door.

"Do you begin to understand now?" asked M. Lecoq.

"Understand, patron? Why, a child could understand it now. Ah, what a man you are! I see the scene as if I had been present. Two persons were present at the robbery; one wished to take the money, the other wished to prevent its being taken. That is clear, that is certain."

Accustomed to triumphs of this sort, M. Lecoq was much amused at Fanferlot's enthusiasm.

"There you go off, half-primed again," he said, good-humoredly: "you regard as sure proof a circumstance which may be accidental, and at the most only probable."

"No, patron, no! a man like you could not be mistaken: doubt no longer exists."

"That being the case, what deductions would you draw from our discovery?"

"In the first place, it proves that I am correct in thinking the cashier innocent."

"How so?"

"Because, at perfect liberty to open the safe whenever he wished to do so, it is not likely that he would have brought a witness when he intended to commit the theft."

"Well reasoned, Fanferlot. But on this supposition the banker would be equally innocent: reflect a little."

Fanferlot reflected, and all of his animation vanished.

"You are right," he said in a despairing tone. "What can be done now?"

"Look for the third rogue, or rather the real rogue, the one who opened the safe, and stole the notes, and who is still at large, while others are suspected."

Fanferlot occasionally becomes sheepish in the presence of Monsieur Lecoq:

"That will do," interrupted M. Lecoq. "If I choose to lend you a helping hand, it is because it suits my fancy to do so. It pleases me to be the head, and let you be the hand. Unassisted, with your preconceived ideas, you never would have found the culprit; if we two together don't find him, my name is not Lecoq."

"We shall certainly succeed if you interest yourself in the case."

Lecoq's method:

Prosper is amazed at the fact that Lecoq could see through the tangled skein. In disguise as Verduret ("the fat man"), he responds to Prosper's bewilderment:

"I can't help wondering how you discovered all this tissue of crime."

"Ah, that is the point!" said the fat man with a self-satisfied smile. "When I undertake a task, I devote my whole attention to it. Now, make a note of this: When a man of ordinary intelligence concentrates his thoughts and energies upon the attainment of an object, he is certain to obtain ultimate success. Besides that, I have my own method of working up a case."

"Still I don't see what grounds you had to go upon."

"To be sure, one needs some light to guide one in a dark affair like this. But the fire in Clameran's eye at the mention of Gaston's name ignited my lantern. From that moment I walked straight to the solution of the mystery, as I would walk to a beacon-light on a dark night."

Lecoq reveals a little more about his method:

"Well," he replied, "I will explain my system. There is nothing marvellous about it as you will soon see. We worked together to find the solution of the problem, so you know my reasons for suspecting Clameran as the prime mover in the robbery. As soon as I had acquired this certainty, my task was easy. You want to know what I did? I placed trustworthy people to watch the parties in whom I was most interested. Joseph Dubois took charge of Clameran, and Nina Gypsy never lost sight of Mme. Fauvel and her niece."

Another passage shows Lecoq, as Verduret, working through a problem:

Lying back in a corner of the carriage, with his feet upon the front seat, M. Verduret seemed to be enjoying a nap; yet he was never more wide awake.

He was in a perplexed state of mind. This expedition, which, he had been confident, would resolve all his doubts, had only added mystery to mystery. His chain of evidence, which he thought so strongly linked, was completely broken.

For him the facts remained the same, but circumstances had changed. He could not imagine what common motive, what moral or material complicity, what influences, could have existed to make the four actors in his drama, Mme. Fauvel, Madeleine, Raoul, and Clameran, seem to have the same object in view.

He was seeking in his fertile mind, that encyclopaedia of craft and subtlety, for some combination which would throw light on the problem before him.

Howard Haycraft's
Assessment of Gaboriau's Novels

Writing in the 1940s, Howard Haycraft observed that, although Gaboriau wrote "the first detective novel" (The Widow Lerouge), the book "bears little resemblance to what we mean by the term today." He explains:

The reader will notice that a distinction has been implied between the full-blown detective novel, concerned with detection and nothing else, and the novel that merely makes use of detection as one of several themes. Gaboriau's tales all belong to the latter classification. When he sticks to detection, it is excellent detection indeed; but in no one of the five novels...did he succeed in so limiting himself. (Murder for Pleasure)

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However, as the novel that promoted Monsieur Lecoq to the status of master detective, File No. 113 deserves to be read. The passages quoted in this article show Gaboriau's style, the interaction of his characters, and the wit and lively dialogue that Gaboriau employed. The detection is, as Howard Haycraft points out, "excellent detection indeed." I found the book to be highly readable and the story well told and plausible. File No. 113 made an important contribution to the detective, crime, and murder mystery genre and influenced writers from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on.

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