Emile Gaboriau's Influence on
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Part 1

by Drew R. Thomas

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first set out to make his mark on the developing detective, crime, and murder mystery genre, he relied upon predecessors, whom he obviously studied and learned from.

Following the template invented by Edgar Allan Poe, Doyle had his detective, Sherlock Holmes, criticize Poe's detective, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, just as Dupin had criticized Vidocq before him.

Poe was not the only writer who influenced Doyle in a profound way. Emile Gaboriau was the first person to write about fictional detectives in novel-length form. (Two years before Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone -- the first novel-length detective story in English -- Gaboriau was writing in French.)

Just as Sherlock Holmes had criticized Dupin by calling him "a very inferior fellow," Holmes also criticized Emile Gaboriau's detective Lecoq. Dr. Watson describes Holmes's reaction:

"Have you read Gaboriau's works?" I asked. "Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?"

Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. "Lecoq was a miserable bungler," he said, in an angry voice; "he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid."

In Murder for Pleasure, Howard Haycraft distinguishes 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."

Haycraft continues, "In Monsieur Lecoq, which many critics consider his masterpiece, he put all the detection into the first volume, devoting the entire second half to the narration of a tedious family chronicle."

Might this have been the model Doyle chose to emulate when he wrote his first detective novel, A Study in Scarlet and, later, The Valley of Fear? Both of these novels can be seen as consisting of two novelettes -- with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson working on a case in the first half of each book, and the second half consisting of backstory leading up to the events already described.

Exciting as the backstory portion of each book can be, Holmes doesn't appear in the seven or so chapters of the second half, and one feels a slight disappointment and, perhaps, abandonment when, after spending time with the Great Detective, we are left with a story with no detective and no detection, per se. (Somehow, the backstory seems to work much better -- for me, at least -- when R. Austin Freeman invents the "inverted" detective story with "The Case of Oscar Brodsky." [Read it for free in the Reading Room.] In Freeman's hands, we see the backstory first: we see the criminal in action, planning his crime. We see him commit the crime and we observe the getaway. When Freeman's detective Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke shows up and investigates, it is far more satisfying because we have been waiting for him, and now he is here. Thorndyke's examination and analysis of the clues we have already seen reveal things to us that we readers have overlooked.)

But Freeman's contribution was developed after the early Holmes stories had already been published. Doyle, during his early endeavors at writing detective stories, was still following the models which had been available to him from Poe, Gaboriau, and others.

Some interesting comparisons can be made between phrases and concepts that appear in Gaboriau's writings about Lecoq with those by Doyle in reference to Sherlock Holmes. It may seem a stretch to align some of the following passages side-by-side. Some comparisons may seem oblique, such as those to "art" and phrases such as "you have but to name it." But when one "collects" a mass of comparisons it begins to have a cumulative effect. And it seems to me to point toward the profound influence which Gaboriau had upon Doyle. Some of that influence may well have been subliminal. Much of it, I think, Doyle took note of and consciously applied.

It is clear that Gaboriau (and Poe before him) was a notable source of inspiration for Doyle and a writer from whom Doyle learned the craft and technique of the developing detective, crime, and murder mystery story.

Pere Tabaret says, "This investigation will bring him [Daburon] honor, when all the credit is due me."

Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson: "I am not sure about whether I shall go [to investigate a case brought to him by Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard]....Supposing I unravel the whole matter you may be sure that Gregson, Lestrade & Co. will pocket all the credit."

--A Study in Scarlet

Fanferlot to Lecoq: "Patron, you would make a superb actor, if you would go on the stage...."

Athelney Jones to Sherlock Holmes: "You would have made an actor, and a rare one...."

--The Sign of Four 

"The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime."

--Dr. John H. Watson writing about Holmes in
"A Scandal in Bohemia"

Dris(a servant)
"...was discretion itself."

More than once, Sherlock Holmes described Dr. John H. Watson as "the soul of discretion."

"With her woman's instinct, she [Claire] had arrived at the same result as Pere Tabaret with his logic. Women neither analyze nor reason; they feel and think. Instead of discussing, they affirm; and here, perhaps, arises their superiority."

"I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical  reasoner."

--Sherlock Holmes in "The
Man with the Twisted Lip"

"...the most mischievous woman in Paris."

"The deadliest snake in India"

--"The Speckled Band"

"The worst man in London."

--"The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton"

Gevrol says, "To bring criminals to justice is of no account at all; but to free the innocent, Jove! that is the last touch of art.

--The Widow Lerouge

From that time," continued M. Verduret, "the skein began to disentangle; I held the principal thread. I now set about finding out what had become of Gaston. Lafourcade, who is a friend of your father, informed me that he had bought a foundery, and settled in Oloron, where he soon after suddenly died. Thirty-six hours later I was at Oloron."

--The Widow Lerouge 

"I shall have him, Doctor -- I'll lay you two to one that I have him. I must thank you for it all. I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn't we use a little art jargon. There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it."

--Homes to Watson in
A Study in Scarlet

"M. Daburon, usually the most prudent of men, had considered as simple one of the most complex of cases. He had acted in a mysterious crime, which demanded the utmost caution, as carelessly as though it were a case of simple misdemeanor. Why? Because his memory had not left him his free deliberation, judgment, and discernment. He had feared equally appearing weak and being revengeful. Thinking himself sure of his facts, he had been carried away by his animosity. And yet how often had he not asked himself: Where is duty? But then, when one is at all doubtful about duty, one is on the wrong road."

--The Widow Lerouge

"This complicates matters," said Gregson. "Heaven knows, they were complicated enough before!"

"You're sure it doesn't simplify them?" observed Holmes.

--A Study in Scarlet

"It is at the family fireside, often under shelter of the law itself, that the real tragedies of life are acted...."

"You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there."

--Holmes to Watson in "The Copper Beeches"

"Oh, oh, oh!" exclaimed Fanferlot in three different tones of admiration, as he stood gazing in a revery 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."

--The Widow Lerouge

The apparent simplicity of this mode of investigation confounded Prosper. He wondered it had not occurred to him before.

--The Widow Lerouge

"My dear Holmes," said I, "this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess, but as I have changed my clothes I can't imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice, but there, again, I fail to see how you work it out."

He chuckled to himself and rubbed his long, nervous hands together.

"It is simplicity itself," said he; "my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession."

I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. "When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked, "the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours."

--"A Scandal in Bohemia "

Lecoq tells Fanferlot the secret of his art of disguise: "The art lies in being able to change the eye. That is the secret."

 "But your appearance, Holmes--your ghastly face?"

"Three days of absolute fast does not improve one's beauty, Watson. For the rest, there is nothing which a sponge may not cure. With vaseline upon one's forehead, belladonna in one's eyes, rouge over the cheek-bones, and crusts of beeswax round one's lips, a very satisfying effect can be produced. Malingering is a subject upon which I have sometimes thought of writing a monograph. A little occasional talk about half-crowns, oysters, or any other extraneous subject produces a pleasing effect of delirium."

--"The Dying Detective"

"The marks are plain?"

"As plain as the nose on my face, sir, if I may so express myself. The thief--it was done by a thief, I imagine," continued M. Martin, who was a great talker--"the thief entered the garden before the rain, and went away after it, as you had conjectured. This circumstance is easy to establish by examining the marks on the wall of the ascent and the descent on the side towards the street. These marks are several abrasions, evidently made by feet of some one climbing. The first are clean; the others, muddy. The scamp--he was a nimble fellow--in getting in, pulled himself up by the strength of his wrists; but when going away, he enjoyed the luxury of a ladder, which he threw down as soon as he was on the top of the wall. It is to see where he placed it, by holes made in the ground by the fellow's weight; and also by the mortar which has been knocked away from the top of the wall."

"Patent leathers and Square-toes came in the same cab, and they walked down the pathway together as friendly as possible -- arm-in-arm, in all probability. When they got inside they walked up and down the room -- or rather, Patent-leathers stood still while Square-toes walked up and down. I could read all that in the dust; and I could read that as he walked he grew more and more excited. That is shown by the increased length of his strides. He was talking all the while, and working himself up, no doubt, into a fury. Then the tragedy occurred. I've told you all I know myself now, for the rest is mere surmise and conjecture. We have a good working basis, however, on which to start."

--A Study in Scarlet

Part 2 of this article will contain longer quotes to give you an opportunity to see the quotes in context so you can make a more accurate comparison.

Recommended Reading

Gaboriau's books about Tabaret and Lecoq:

Sherlock Holmes books:

Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft

Gaslight: 1887 | Home

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