In the 1940s, Howard Haycraft wrote, "In the sense that it [L'Affair Lerouge] was the first story of novel length to employ detection as an important theme, it is perhaps entitled to the appellation 'the first detective novel' -- though it bears little resemblance to what we mean by the term today" (Murder for Pleasure). (Note: L'Affaire Lerouge [or, in English, The Widow Lerouge] was published in French in1866. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, appeared in 1868 and is generally considered the first detective novel to appear in English.)
Emile Gaboriau was to create a master detective named Monsieur Lecoq, who would appear in a number of books. In L'Affaire Lerouge, however, Lecoq was a young man on the police force who recommended his mentor Pere Tabaret (also known as Tirauclair) as worthy of investigating a complicated crime brought to the attention of the police. This first murder mystery by Gaboriau, then, belongs to Tabaret.
This book was an important contribution to the development of the genre of detective, crime, and murder mystery books. In it, we see some themes that influenced later writers, among them:
Other aphorisms and worthy quotes also appear in the book:
And compare some phrases and ideas with those used by later writers of detective, crime, and murder mystery books:
L'Affaire Lerouge introduces the "eccentric and mysterious" Tabaret, who works through the problem of the disappearance and murder of the widow Lerouge. Tabaret says, "Who but I should have, by the sole exercise of observation and reason, established the whole history of the assassination?... I must sift to the bottom all the particulars and arrange my ideas systematically before meeting him [the judge, M. Daburon, before whom Tabaret is presenting the case] again."
Good storytelling, combined with excellent detection, make for a highly readable experience. The following passage describes a meeting between Daburon and Tabaret. The two men of character match wits and challenge each other:
Had he been less preoccupied, the advocate might have perceived at the
end of the gallery old Tabaret, who had just arrived, eager and happy,
like a bearer of great news as he was.
His cab had scarcely stopped at the gate of the Palais de Justice before he was in the courtyard and rushing towards the porch. To see him jumping more nimbly than a fifth-rate lawyer's clerk up the steep flight of stairs leading to the magistrate's office, one would never have believed that he was many years on the shady side of fifty. Even he himself had forgotten it. He did not remember how he had passed the night; he had never before felt so fresh, so agile, in such spirits; he seemed to have springs of steel in his limbs.
He burst like a cannon-shot into the magistrate's office, knocking up against the methodical clerk in the rudest of ways, without even asking his pardon.
"Caught!" he cried, while yet on the threshold, "caught, nipped, squeezed, strung, trapped, locked! We have got the man."
Old Tabaret, more Tirauclair than ever, gesticulated with such comical vehemence and such remarkable contortions that even the tall clerk smiled, for which, however, he took himself severely to task on going to bed that night.
But M. Daburon, still under the influence of Noel's deposition, was shocked at this apparently unseasonable joy; although he felt the safer for it. He looked severely at old Tabaret, saying,--"Hush, sir; be decent, compose yourself."
At any other time, the old fellow would have felt ashamed at having deserved such a reprimand. Now, it made no impression on him.
"I can't be quiet," he replied. "Never has anything like this been known before. All that I mentioned has been found. Broken foil, lavender kid gloves slightly frayed, cigar-holder; nothing is wanting. You shall have them, sir, and many other things besides. I have a little system of my own, which appears by no means a bad one. Just see the triumph of my method of induction, which Gevrol ridiculed so much. I'd give a hundred francs if he were only here now. But no; my Gevrol wants to nab the man with the earrings; he is just capable of doing that. He is a fine fellow, this Gevrol, a famous fellow! How much do you give him a year for his skill?"
"Come, my dear M. Tabaret," said the magistrate, as soon as he could get in a word, "be serious, if you can, and let us proceed in order."
"Pooh!" replied the old fellow, "what good will that do? It is a clear case now. When they bring the fellow before you, merely show him the particles of kid taken from behind the nails of the victim, side by side with his torn gloves, and you will overwhelm him. I wager that he will confess all, hic et nunc,--yes, I wager my head against his; although that's pretty risky; for he may get off yet! Those milk-sops on the jury are just capable of according him extenuating circumstances. Ah! all those delays are fatal to justice! Why if all the world were of my mind, the punishment of rascals wouldn't take such a time. They should be hanged as soon as caught. That's my opinion."
M. Daburon resigned himself to this shower of words. As soon as the old fellow's excitement had cooled down a little, he began questioning him. He even then had great trouble in obtaining the exact details of the arrest; details which later on were confirmed by the commissary's official report.
The magistrate appeared very surprised when he heard that Albert had exclaimed, "I am lost!" at sight of the warrant. "That," muttered he, "is a terrible proof against him."
"I should think so," replied old Tabaret. "In his ordinary state, he would never have allowed himself to utter such words; for they in fact destroy him. We arrested him when he was scarcely awake. He hadn't been in bed, but was lying in a troubled sleep, upon a sofa, when we arrived. I took good care to let a frightened servant run in advance, and to follow closely upon him myself, to see the effect. All my arrangements were made. But, never fear, he will find a plausible excuse for this fatal exclamation. By the way, I should add that we found on the floor, near by, a crumpled copy of last evening's 'Gazette de France,' which contained an account of the assassination. This is the first time that a piece of news in the papers ever helped to nab a criminal."
"Yes," murmured the magistrate, deep in thought, "yes, you are a valuable man, M. Tabaret." Then, louder, he added, "I am thoroughly convinced...."
Tabaret advises Monsieur Daburon on how to arrest the suspect and on how to treat him:
"It is evident," continued the old fellow, "that our
adversary has foreseen everything, absolutely everything, even
the possibility of suspicion attaching to one in his high
position. Oh! his precautions are all taken. If you are
satisfied with demanding his appearance, he is saved. He will
appear before you as tranquilly as your clerk, as unconcerned as
if he came to arrange the preliminaries of a duel. He will
present you with a magnificent alibi, an alibi that can not be gainsayed. He will show you that he passed the evening and the night
of Tuesday with personages of the highest rank. In short, his little
machine will be so cleverly constructed, so nicely arranged, all its
little wheels will play so well, that there will be nothing left for you
but to open the door and usher him out with the most humble apologies.
The only means of securing conviction is to surprise the miscreant by
a rapidity against which it is impossible he can be on his guard. Fall
upon him like a thunder-clap, arrest him as he wakes, drag him hither
while yet pale with astonishment, and interrogate him at once. Ah! I
wish I were an investigating magistrate."
Old Tabaret stopped short, frightened at the idea that he had been wanting in respect; but M. Daburon showed no sign of being offended.
"Proceed," said he, in a tone of encouragement, "proceed."
"Suppose, then," continued the detective, "I am the investigating magistrate. I cause my man to be arrested, and, twenty minutes later, he is standing before me. I do not amuse myself by putting questions to him, more or less subtle. No, I go straight to the mark. I overwhelm him at once by the weight of my certainty, prove to him so clearly that I know everything, that he must surrender, seeing no chance of escape. I should say to him, 'My good man, you bring me an alibi; it is very well; but I am acquainted with that system of defence. It will not do with me. I know all about the clocks that don't keep proper time, and all the people who never lost sight of you. In the meantime, this is what you did. At twenty minutes past eight, you slipped away adroitly; at thirty-five minutes past eight, you took the train at the St Lazare station; at nine o'clock, you alighted at the station at Rueil, and took the road to La Jonchere; at a quarter past nine, you knocked at the window-shutter of Widow Lerouge's cottage. You were admitted. You asked for something to eat, and, above all, something to drink. At twenty minutes past nine, you planted the well-sharpened end of a foil between her shoulders. You killed her! You then overturned everything in the house, and burned certain documents of importance; after which, you tied up in a napkin all the valuables you could find, and carried them off, to lead the police to believe the murder was the work of a robber. You locked the door, and threw away the key. Arrived at the Seine, you threw the bundle into the water, then hurried off to the railway station on foot, and at eleven o'clock you reappeared amongst your friends. Your game was well played; but you omitted to provide against two adversaries, a detective, not easily deceived, named Tirauclair, and another still more clever, named chance. Between them, they have got the better of you. Moreover, you were foolish to wear such small boots, and to keep on your lavender kid gloves, besides embarrassing yourself with a silk hat and an umbrella. Now confess your guilt, for it is the only thing left you to do, and I will give you permission to smoke in your dungeon some of those excellent trabucos you are so fond of, and which you always smoke with an amber mouthpiece.'"
During this speech, M. Tabaret had gained at least a couple of inches in height, so great was his enthusiasm. He looked at the magistrate, as if expecting a smile of approbation.
"Yes," continued he, after taking breath, "I would say that, and nothing else; and, unless this man is a hundred times stronger than I suppose him to be, unless he is made of bronze, of marble, or of steel, he would fall at my feet and avow his guilt."
"But supposing he were of bronze," said M. Daburon, "and did not fall at your feet, what would you do next?"
The question evidently embarrassed the old fellow.
"Pshaw!" stammered he; "I don't know; I would see; I would search; but he would confess."
When the suspect is brought before the judge, he proclaims his innocence:
"I admit," protested Albert, "that I am the victim of one of those
terrible fatalities which make men doubt the evidence of their reason. I
"Then tell me where you passed Tuesday evening."
"Ah, sir!" cried the prisoner, "I should have to--" But, restraining himself, he added in a faint voice, "I have made the only answer that I can make."
M. Daburon rose, having now reached his grand stroke.
"It is, then, my duty," said he, with a shade of irony, "to supply your failure of memory. I am going to remind you of where you went and what you did. On Tuesday evening at eight o'clock, after having obtained from the wine you drank, the dreadful energy you needed, you left your home. At thirty-five minutes past eight, you took the train at the St. Lazare station. At nine o'clock, you alighted at the station at Rueil."
And, not disdaining to employ Tabaret's ideas, the investigating magistrate repeated nearly word for word the tirade improvised the night before by the amateur detective.
He had every reason, while speaking, to admire the old fellow's penetration. In all his life, his eloquence had never produced so striking an effect. Every sentence, every word, told. The prisoner's assurance, already shaken, fell little by little, just like the outer coating of a wall when riddled with bullets.
Now Monsieur Daburon is convinced that Tabaret was correct. But there is a woman in the case, and it is a woman for whom Monsieur Daburon has feelings. He regrets his involvement in the case:
When Albert had departed under the escort of the gendarmes, the
magistrate muttered in a low tone, "There's an obstinate fellow for
you." He certainly no longer entertained the shadow of a doubt. To him,
Albert was as surely the murderer as if he had admitted his guilt
Even if he should persist in his system of denial to the end of the
investigation, it was impossible, that, with the proofs already in the
possession of the police, a true bill should not be found against him.
He was therefore certain of being committed for trial at the assizes. It
was a hundred to one, that the jury would bring in a verdict of guilty.
Left to himself, however, M. Daburon did not experience that intense satisfaction, mixed with vanity, which he ordinarily felt after he had successfully conducted an examination, and had succeeded in getting his prisoner into the same position as Albert. Something disturbed and shocked him. At the bottom of his heart, he felt ill at ease. He had triumphed; but his victory gave him only uneasiness, pain, and vexation. A reflection so simple that he could hardly understand why it had not occurred to him at first, increased his discontent, and made him angry with himself.
"Something told me," he muttered, "that I was wrong to undertake this business. I am punished for not having obeyed that inner voice. I ought to have declined to proceed with the investigation. The Viscount de Commarin, was, all the same, certain to be arrested, imprisoned, examined, confounded, tried, and probably condemned. Then, being in no way connected with the trial, I could have reappeared before Claire. Her grief will be great. As her friend, I could have soothed her, mingled my tears with hers, calmed her regrets. With time, she might have been consoled, and perhaps have forgotten him. She could not have helped feeling grateful to me, and then who knows--? While now, whatever may happen, I shall be an object of loathing to her: she will never be able to endure the sight of me. In her eyes I shall always be her lover's assassin. I have with my own hands opened an abyss! I have lost her a second time, and by my own fault."
The unhappy man heaped the bitterest reproaches upon himself. He was in despair. He had never so hated Albert,--that wretch, who, stained with a crime, stood in the way of his happiness. Then too he cursed old Tabaret! Alone, he would not have decided so quickly. He would have waited, thought over the matter, matured his decision, and certainly have perceived the inconveniences, which now occurred to him. The old fellow, always carried away like a badly trained bloodhound, and full of stupid enthusiasm, had confused him, and led him to do what he now so much regretted.
It was precisely this unfavorable moment that M. Tabaret chose for reappearing before the magistrate. He had just been informed of the termination of the inquiry; and he arrived, impatient to know what had passed, swelling with curiosity, and full of the sweet hope of hearing of the fulfilment of his predictions.
"What answers did he make?" he asked even before he had closed the door.
"He is evidently guilty," replied the magistrate, with a harshness very different to his usual manner.
Old Tabaret, who expected to receive praises by the basketful, was astounded at this tone! It was therefore, with great hesitancy that he offered his further services.
"I have come," he said modestly, "to know if any investigations are necessary to demolish the alibi pleaded by the prisoner."
"He pleaded no alibi," replied the magistrate, dryly.
"How," cried the detective, "no alibi? Pshaw! I ask pardon: he has of course then confessed everything."
"No," said the magistrate impatiently, "he has confessed nothing. He acknowledges that the proofs are decisive: he can not give an account of how he spent his time; but he protests his innocence."
In the centre of the room, M. Tabaret stood with his mouth wide open, and his eyes staring wildly, and altogether in the most grotesque attitude his astonishment could effect. He was literally thunderstruck. In spite of his anger, M. Daburon could not help smiling; and even Constant gave a grin, which on his lips was equivalent to a paroxysm of laughter.
"Not an alibi, nothing?" murmured the old fellow. "No explanations? The idea! It is inconceivable! Not an alibi? We must then be mistaken: he cannot be the criminal. That is certain!"
The investigating magistrate felt that the old amateur must have been waiting the result of the examination at the wine shop round the corner, or else that he had gone mad.
"Unfortunately," said he, "we are not mistaken. It is but too clearly shown that M. de Commarin is the murderer. However, if you like, you can ask Constant for his report of the examination, and read it over while I put these papers in order."
"Very well," said the old fellow with feverish anxiety.
He sat down in Constant's chair, and, leaning his elbows on the table, thrusting his hands in his hair, he in less than no time read the report through. When he had finished, he arose with pale and distorted features.
"Sir," said he to the magistrate in a strange voice, "I have been the involuntary cause of a terrible mistake. This man is innocent."
Daburon, who originally challenged Tabaret's assertion that the suspect was guilty, has been persuaded and is now completely convinced in his guilt. Tabaret, however, sees something that changes his opinion:
"Come, come," said M. Daburon, without stopping his preparations for
departure, "you are going out of your mind, my dear M. Tabaret. How,
after all that you have read there, can--"
"Yes, sir, yes: it is because I have read this that I entreat you to pause, or we shall add one more mistake to the sad list of judicial errors. Read this examination over carefully; there is not a reply but which declares this unfortunate man innocent, not a word but which throws out a ray of light. And he is still in prison, still in solitary confinement?"
"He is; and there he will remain, if you please," interrupted the magistrate. "It becomes you well to talk in this manner, after the way you spoke last night, when I hesitated so much."
"But, sir," cried the old detective, "I still say precisely the same. Ah, wretched Tabaret! all is lost; no one understands you. Pardon me, sir, if I lack the respect due to you; but you have not grasped my method. It is, however, very simple. Given a crime, with all the circumstances and details, I construct, bit by bit, a plan of accusation, which I do not guarantee until it is entire and perfect. If a man is found to whom this plan applies exactly in every particular the author of the crime is found: otherwise, one has laid hands upon an innocent person. It is not sufficient that such and such particulars seem to point to him; it must be all or nothing. This is infallible. Now, in this case, how have I reached the culprit? Through proceeding by inference from the known to the unknown. I have examined his work; and I have formed an idea of the worker. Reason and logic lead us to what? To a villain, determined, audacious, and prudent, versed in the business. And do you think that such a man would neglect a precaution that would not be omitted by the stupidest tyro? It is inconceivable. What! this man is so skillful as to leave such feeble traces that they escape Gevrol's practised eye, and you think he would risk his safety by leaving an entire night unaccounted for? It's impossible! I am as sure of my system as of a sum that has been proved. The assassin has an alibi. Albert has pleaded none; then he is innocent."
M. Daburon surveyed the detective pityingly, much as he would have looked at a remarkable monomaniac. When the old fellow had finished,--"My worthy M. Tabaret," the magistrate said to him: "you have but one fault. You err through an excess of subtlety, you accord too freely to others the wonderful sagacity with which you yourself are endowed. Our man has failed in prudence, simply because he believed his rank would place him above suspicion."
"No, sir, no, a thousand times no. My culprit,--the true one,--he whom we have missed catching, feared everything. Besides, does Albert defend himself? No. He is overwhelmed because he perceives coincidences so fatal that they appear to condemn him, without a chance of escape. Does he try to excuse himself? No. He simply replies, 'It is terrible.' And yet all through his examination I feel reticence that I cannot explain."
"I can explain it very easily; and I am as confident as though he had confessed everything. I have more than sufficient proofs for that."
"Ah, sir, proofs! There are always enough of those against an arrested man. They existed against every innocent man who was ever condemned. Proofs! Why, I had them in quantities against Kaiser, the poor little tailor, who--"
"Well," interrupted the magistrate, hastily, "if it is not he, the most interested one, who committed the crime, who then is it? His father, the Count de Commarin?"
"No: the true assassin is a young man."
M. Daburon had arranged his papers, and finished his preparations. He took up his hat, and, as he prepared to leave, replied: "You must then see that I am right. Come and see me by-and-by, M. Tabaret, and make haste and get rid of all your foolish ideas. To-morrow we will talk the whole matter over again. I am rather tired to-night." Then he added, addressing his clerk, "Constant, look in at the record office, in case the prisoner Commarin should wish to speak to me."
He moved towards the door; but M. Tabaret barred his exit.
"Sir," said the old man, "in the name of heaven listen to me! He is innocent, I swear to you. Help me, then, to find the real culprit. Sir, think of your remorse should you cause an--"
But the magistrate would not hear more. He pushed old Tabaret quickly aside, and hurried out.
The old man now turned to Constant. He wished to convince him. Lost trouble: the tall clerk hastened to put his things away, thinking of his soup, which was getting cold.
So that M. Tabaret soon found himself locked out of the room and alone in the dark passage. All the usual sounds of the Palais had ceased: the place was silent as the tomb. The old detective desperately tore his hair with both hands.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "Albert is innocent; and it is I who have cast suspicion upon him. It is I, fool that I am, who have infused into the obstinate spirit of this magistrate a conviction that I can no longer destroy. He is innocent and is yet enduring the most horrible anguish. Suppose he should commit suicide! There have been instances of wretched men, who in despair at being falsely accused have killed themselves in their cells. Poor boy! But I will not abandon him. I have ruined him: I will save him! I must, I will find the culprit; and he shall pay dearly for my mistake, the scoundrel!"
When Tabaret next discusses the evidence with Monsieur Daburon, he appeals to reason:
Excuses were superfluous. M. Daburon was never disturbed by a call at
eight o'clock in the morning. He was already at work. He received the
old amateur detective with his usual kindness, and even joked with him
a little about his excitement of the previous evening. Who would have
thought his nerves were so sensitive? Doubtless the night had brought
deliberation. Had he recovered his reason? or had he put his hand on the
This trifling tone in a magistrate, who was accused of being grave even to a fault, troubled the old man. Did not this quizzing hide a determination not to be influenced by anything that he could say? He believed it did; and it was without the least deception that he commenced his pleading.
He put the case more calmly this time, but with all the energy of a well-digested conviction. He had appealed to the heart, he now appealed to reason; but, although doubt is essentially contagious, he neither succeeded in convincing the magistrate, nor in shaking his opinion. His strongest arguments were of no more avail against M. Daburon's absolute conviction than bullets made of bread crumbs would be against a breastplate. And there was nothing very surprising in that.
Old Tabaret had on his side only a subtle theory, mere words; M. Daburon possessed palpable testimony, facts. And such was the peculiarity of the case, that all the reasons brought forward by the old man to justify Albert simply reacted against him, and confirmed his guilt.
A repulse at the magistrate's hands had entered too much into M. Tabaret's anticipations for him to appear troubled or discouraged. He declared that, for the present, he would insist no more; he had full confidence in the magistrate's wisdom and impartiality. All he wished was to put him on his guard against the presumptions which he himself unfortunately had taken such pains to inspire.
He was going, he added, to busy himself with obtaining more information. They were only at the beginning of the investigation; and they were still ignorant of very many things, even of Widow Lerouge's past life. More facts might come to light. Who knew what testimony the man with the earrings, who was being pursued by Gevrol, might give? Though in a great rage internally, and longing to insult and chastise he whom he inwardly styled a "fool of a magistrate," old Tabaret forced himself to be humble and polite. He wished, he said, to keep well posted up in the different phases of the investigation, and to be informed of the result of future interrogations. He ended by asking permission to communicate with Albert, He thought his services deserved this slight favour. He desired an interview of only ten minutes without witnesses.
M. Daburon refused this request. He declared, that, for the present, the prisoner must continue to remain strictly in solitary confinement. By way of consolation, he added that, in three or four days, he might perhaps be able to reconsider this decision, as the motives which prompted it would then no longer exist.
"Your refusal is cruel, sir," said M. Tabaret; "but I understand it, and submit."
That was his only complaint: and he withdrew almost immediately, fearing that he could no longer master his indignation. He felt that, besides the great happiness of saving an innocent man, compromised by his imprudence, he would experience unspeakable delight in avenging himself for the magistrate's obstinacy.
"Three or four days," he muttered, "that is the same as three or four years to the unfortunate prisoner. He takes things quite at his ease, this charming magistrate. But I must find out the real truth of the case between now and then."
Yes, M. Daburon only required three or four days to wring a confession from Albert, or at least to make him abandon his system of defence.
The difficulty of the prosecution was not being able to produce any witness who had seen the prisoner during the evening of Shrove Tuesday.
Monsieur Tabaret takes charge of his own investigation:
Greatly troubled and perplexed by Mademoiselle d'Arlange's revelations,
M. Daburon was ascending the stairs that led to the offices of the
investigating magistrates, when he saw old Tabaret coming towards him.
The sight pleased him, and he at once called out: "M. Tabaret!"
But the old fellow, who showed signs of the most intense agitation, was scarcely disposed to stop, or to lose a single minute.
"You must excuse me, sir," he said, bowing, "but I am expected at home."
"I hope, however--"
"Oh, he is innocent," interrupted old Tabaret. "I have already some proofs; and before three days--But you are going to see Gevrol's man with the earrings. He is very cunning, Gevrol; I misjudged him."
And without listening to another word, he hurried away, jumping down three steps at a time, at the risk of breaking his neck.
Some report back to Monsieur Daburon to keep him apprised of Tabaret's investigation:
They all thought it their duty, however, to inform the magistrate that
another inquiry was going on at the same time as theirs. It was directed
by M. Tabaret, who personally scoured the country round about in a
cabriolet drawn by a very swift horse. He must have acted with great
promptness; for, no matter where they went, he had been there before
them. He appeared to have under his orders a dozen men, four of whom at
least certainly belonged to the Rue de Jerusalem. All the detectives had
met him; and he had spoken to them. To one, he had said: "What the deuce
are you showing this photograph for? In less than no time you will have
a crowd of witnesses, who, to earn three francs, will describe some one
more like the portrait than the portrait itself."
He had met another on the high-road, and had laughed at him.
"You are a simple fellow," he cried out, "to hunt for a hiding man on the high-way; look a little aside, and you may find him."
Again he had accosted two who were together in a cafe at Bougival, and had taken them aside.
"I have him," he said to them. "He is a smart fellow; he came by Chatois. Three people have seen him--two railway porters and a third person whose testimony will be decisive, for she spoke to him. He was smoking."
When Tabaret finally manages to clear Albert, Daburon reproaches the now-cleared suspect:
"You see, monsieur, you did deceive
me. You risked your life, monsieur,
and what is still more serious, you
exposed me, you exposed Justice, to
a most deplorable mistake. Why did
you not tell me the truth?"
"Monsieur," replied Albert, "Mademoiselle d'Arlanges, in according me a meeting, trusted in my honor."
"And you would have died rather than speak of this interview?"
These highlights serve to demonstrate the writing style Gaboriau employed, the interaction among characters, and the worthy addition that he contributed to the developing genre of detective, crime, and murder mystery books. The Widow Lerouge makes an important contribution.
After this story, however, Pere Tabaret steps down and Monsieur Lecoq takes center stage as the detective of note in Gaboriau's remaining tales.
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