Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE FIRST DETECTIVE by James Morton

THE FIRST DETECTIVE

The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq, Criminal, Spy, and Private Eye

By James Morton

Pub Date: July 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59020-638-6
Publisher: Overlook

The picaresque adventures of the legendary French thief, cuckold, turncoat and spy.

Former lawyer turned proficient crime writer Morton (Gangland Soho, 2008, etc.) finds an irresistible subject in Eugène-François Vidocq (1775–1857), who discovered his lucrative calling as a prison informer and founder of the first detective agency in Paris in the 1830s. His criminal exploits and successes inspired his own fiction, as well as characters like Balzac’s Vautrin, Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean and Javert and Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Dupin. Morton tries to sift the fact from fanciful fiction, and while amused by Vidocq’s own tales, relies heavily on accounts by previous biographers. Born to a baker and a mother who would stand by him his whole life despite his delinquency, Vidocq would soon be burgling his own parents, joining a circus, falling in and out of the army, provoking duels, conducting romances with ladies who routinely shook him down and duped him, thieving, forging and then being thrown in prison. “With a show of bravado worthy of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Fan-Fan La Tulipe,” writes Morton mischievously, Vidocq was frequently in disguise, “ducking, diving and dining all over the city.” Escape from prison was his forte, before being transported to the formidable “prison-cum-lunatic-asylum-cum-hospital-cum-poorhouse” at Bicêtre. Becoming an informer saved his life, and by 1811, he had arrived as an effective mouchard at the Brigade de Sûreté. Vidocq’s reputation in cleaning up Paris spread his fame to London and elsewhere.

Wry and rollicking, these escapades offer old-fashioned literary fun while somewhat taxing reader credulity and patience.