The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Black Coats Adventures (1863-1875)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Black Coats Adventures were written by Paul Féval and appeared in the eleven novel Black Coats series, beginning with The Black Coats (original: Les Habits Noir). Féval (1816-1875) was a popular French author of swashbucklers, historical novels, and crime thrillers.
The Black Coats series is about an international criminal conspiracy, the “Black Coats,” whose agents are scattered across Europe. The Black Coats are led by Colonel Bozzo-Corona, a mysterious and powerful man. Bozzo-Corona’s lieutenant is Monsieur Lecoq, a.k.a. “Toulonnais L’Amitié,” (“the friendly man from Toulon”), who is modeled on Eugène François Vidocq (see: The Great Detective). The Black Coats’ history stretches back over two hundred years, to Italy in 1625, when the heir to the Monteleone fortune is murdered by his cousin. The heir’s son, Andrea, disappears, returning fifteen years later to seek revenge as the bandit chief Bel Demonio. In the early nineteenth century Andrea’s descendant, Mario de Monteleone, conspires with General Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, to overthrow King Ferdinand VII of Spain. The plot fails and Mario is executed, but eight years later his eldest son avenges him. He then reforms his father’s group, the “Companions of Silence,” into a more powerful, farther-reaching conspiracy, the Black Coats. Throughout the nineteenth century the Black Coats wage war on society, enriching themselves, using a fake Louis XVII to steal a fortune, and dueling with their enemies. In-fighting prevents them from fully embracing success, and members of the Coats’ High Council grow jealous of Bozzo-Corona’s wealth and conspire to kill him and steal his treasure. The Colonel is eventually killed by his enemies, or seems to be; in The Black Coats, the first of the series, the Colonel is killed, but in the tenth novel, The Companions of the Treasure (original: Les Compagnons du Trésor, 1870-1872), this is revealed to have been a charade engineered by the Colonel’s son, Julian, who is supposed to have killed the Colonel and taken his place. But then the old Colonel seems to return. In 1866 the Black Coats fall completely apart from in-fighting, and a new gang, the Black Silk Hoods, is formed from their remains.
The Black Coats novels were popular from the beginning, and in the fourth book, Jerusalem Street (original: La Rue de Jerusalem, 1867), Féval tied the Black Coats’ history to four of his earlier novels: The Mysteries of London (original: Les Mystères de Londres, 1844), Handsome Demon (original: Bel Demonio, 1850), The Companions of Silence (original: Les Compagnons du Silence, 1857), and John Devil (original: Jean Diable, 1862). In Black Coats novels following Jerusalem Street Féval added to his fictional universe. Féval was not the first author to create a shared universe among his books. Balzac had done it decades before in his Comédie Humaine sequence (see: Father Goriot), creating the first coherent, whole, personal fictional universe. And the notion of a shared universe of texts–in modern terms, a universe of crossovers–predates both of them, going back to the Greeks and the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (ninth or tenth century B.C.E.), if not to The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 B.C.E.). And the idea of the textual shared universe–a literary textual metalepsis–was internationally popularized by the work of Jules Verne (see: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), in which seemingly every novel of his middle and late period contains a reference to an earlier or contemporary work. But Féval’s fictional universe is a worthy rival to both Balzac’s and Verne’s in invention, if not literary quality, and for French writers and readers in the middle decades of the nineteenth century the notion of the shared universe came as much from Féval as it did from Verne, so popular was Féval.
The idea of the international criminal conspiracy was not original to Féval, of course. Rumors of the Illuminati and other illegal international conspiracies inspired by the French Revolution go back to the last decades of the eighteenth century, stories of the Freemasons go back to the seventeenth century, rumors of about Jesuit conspiracies date back to the sixteenth century, rumors about the Assassins centuries farther still–and conspiracy theories of all sorts were rife in ancient Rome.1 It was the Illuminati in particular who came to represent as a synecdoche of all conspiracies to the modern mind, however. The cause of this popularity was the papers of Xavier Zwack (1756-1843),
a disgraced member [of the Illuminati] whose trove of letters and documents included plans for creating a secret organization for women, essays defending atheism and suicide, claims that the Illuminati had the power of life or death over their members, and information on secret ink, counterfeiting, poison, and even abortion.
A highly imaginative slew of prospective sin and projected skullduggery, Zwack's papers became the basis for the Illuminati legends that mushroomed almost simultaneously with the Bavarian order's final suppression in 1787. Its fame was first spread by a host of German-language works published attacking and defending the order...taking the seized documents and the controversial literature out of its original context, the embattled defenders of church and king came to see the Illuminati as both representatives of, and the prime movers behind, all the insidious forces of innovation, free thought, and revolution that seemed to threaten their world. European reactionaries simply refused to believe that such a diabolical organization could be killed, seeing its hand in the other major and minor political upheavals of the eighteenth century.2
Among such German works were Friedrich von Schiller’s The Ghost-Seer (1787-1789), Heinrich Zschokke’s The Black Brotherhood (original: Die schwarzen Brüder, 1791-1795), which set the conspiracy in the twenty-fourth century, and Christian Vulpius’ Rinaldo Rinaldini, the Bandit Chief (1799-1801). Types of German works with international criminal conspiracies included Gothics, whose international popularity helped spread the trope of the international criminal conspiracy. Féval helped repopularize the trope after it had lapsed in popularity in the 1820s and 1830s, and helped to modernize it, removing the political element making it about crime and profit rather than overthrowing governments, thus laying the way for modern novels featuring the Mafia and other international criminal conspiracies.
Interestingly, Colonel Bozzo-Corona anticipates Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty (see: “The Adventure of the Final Problem”) as a very intelligent, very capable supervillain who is neither a Gothic Hero-Villain nor a villain out of the sensation novels. Bozzo-Corona is a crime lord, like Moriarty. But despite Féval’s popularity in France only The Mysteries of London, of all the Black Coats novels, was in print in England during Doyle’s early years, and it is highly doubtful that Conan Doyle knew of Colonel Bozzo-Corona, much less was inspired by him. No, Bozzo-Corona is a different sort of villain: “Colonel Bozzo is not a stalwart and imperious figure, but an old and decrepit mastermind who silently orchestrates a vast and international network of criminal conspirators, more akin to the fantastic Masonic conspiracies of power popular in Féval's time than to the inverted feudal traditions parodied in the Bibliothèque bleue.”3
The Black Coats use a series of code words and phrases to express ideas like “Will a crime be committed tomorrow?” and “Has a crime has gone awry?” and that the members of the gang should flee. Féval took the idea of criminal jargon from the slangy French chanson d’argot and the Thieves Cant used by English and French thieves and by the Romany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The slang appears in many of the bandit (see: Rookwood) and Newgate (see: Proto-Mysteries) novels, but its use in the context of a fictional criminal conspiracy anticipates similar code words, like “la familia” and “omerta,” in modern Mafia novels.
The Black Coats novels are unknown in the English language world, but they were and are influential on modern French crime writing:
In addition to the new kind of police detective represented by Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq [see: The Lerouge Affair], a fascination with criminal anti-heroes and avenger vigilantes continued to grow in popularity among French readers into the early twentieth century, reaching fruition in "Les Terribles" of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin [see: The Arsène Lupin Mysteries], Gaston Leroux's Rouletabille and Chéri-Bibi, and Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's Fantômas. The fortunes of Féval's crime factory would continue to nourish the collective social imagination of French readers for decades to come.4
Print: Paul Féval and Brian Stableford, The Black Coats 1: The Parisian Jungle. Tarzana, CA: Black Coats Press, 2008.
Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008677384 (in French; no English translations are available online).
For Further Research
Brian Stableford, “Introduction” and “Afterword,” The Black Coats 1: The Parisian Jungle. Tarzana, CA: Black Coats Press, 2008.
1 See Victoria E. Pagan, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History (Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2013) for much more on this.
2 Jeffrey L. Pasley, “Illuminati,” in Peter Knight, ed., Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 336.
3 Robin Walz, “The Crime Factory: The Missed Fortunes of Paul Féval's Les Habits Noirs,” Journal of the Western Society for French History 37 (2010), accessed Jan. 23, 2019, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/w/wsfh/0642292.0037.014/--crime-factory-the-missed-fortunes-of-paul-fevals-les-habits?rgn=main;view=fulltext
4 Walz, “The Crime Factory.”