The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Lerouge Affair (1865)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Lerouge Affair (original: L’Affaire Lerouge) was written by Émile Gaboriau and first appeared as a roman feuilleton in Le Pays (Sept. 14-Dec. 7, 1865). The detective in The Lerouge Affair, Monsieur Lecoq, went on to appear in six novels by Gaboriau. Gaboriau (1835-1873) was a French novelist and journalist and worked for a time as the secretary to Paul Féval (see: The Black Coats Adventures). Gaboriau wrote widely, but his historical romances are now viewed as second-rate and his journalism is unread and mostly unavailable today. But Gaboriau’s place in literary history is secure for his mysteries and for Monsieur Lecoq, and Gaboriau is seen as one of the creators of the modern mystery novel.

Monsieur Lecoq is a police detective. His portrayal changes over the course of the five novels. In The Lerouge Affair he plays a relatively minor role, as a young, energetic police detective who consults with the elderly Tabaret (a.k.a. “Pére Tireauclair,” or “Father Light-Bringer”), a retired pawnbroker’s clerk and wealthy bibliophile. Initially it is Tabaret who displays the incredible skill at making precise and accurate deductions of crimes based on brief examinations of the evidence, but Lecoq gradually gains that skill and it is he rather than Tabaret who is called “Pére Tireauclair.” Lecoq is a determined and clever detective who is respected by certain influential judges but who must nonetheless struggle against the obtuseness of most his colleagues. (Some of them idolize him, however). Lecoq is careful, logical, and a master of disguise who “moulds his features according to his will, as the sculptor moulds clay for modeling.”1 Better still, while Lecoq is vain and a self-promoter, he is an honest policeman, something of a rarity in the French police forces of this era. This honesty was a major reason why the French reading public so took to Lecoq. The French public disliked the police on general principle in this time period, but the concept of an honest policeman appealed to them. At the time there was a perception, partially based on fact, that violence was on the increase and that the slow professionalization of the French police force was not keeping pace, so that a fictionalized, heroic policeman was that much more appealing to the reading audience. The real police detectives were, in Gaboriau’s words, “loathed as intensely as if he were some monstrous horror, in lieu of generally being a most useful servant of society,”2 but a fictional police detective who was the antithesis of the common stereotype, and who upbraids and embarrasses police characters who were close to the stereotype, was uniquely appealing.

The origins of the mystery genre are considerably more fluid and nebulous than they have traditionally been described (see: Detectives). The continuum from the Proto-Mysteries to Edgar Allan Poe (see: The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries), and to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, is much more complicated and crowded than most readers think and most critics have described. Poe is generally considered to be the father of the modern mystery, but there were many stories about crime before Poe wrote the first Dupin story. What Poe did was essentialize the mystery short story, synthesizing it out of elements already existing in other types of fiction. Gaboriau is in the same position. There were novels before Gaboriau in which a mystery was solved and was at the center of the plot. He was working within a developing continuum. But he significantly contributed to the development of the concept of the mystery novel.

Gaboriau’s most important contribution was to shift the focus of the novels on to the mystery, rather than on the social aspects of the characters. This idea, of a story focused on detection rather than on characters and relationships, was not Gaboriau’s invention, of course. It was Poe’s. Gaboriau was consciously imitating Poe; Baudelaire’s translation of Poe had first appeared in 1856, and Gaboriau had been inspired by it. And Poe was only one of the sources Gaboriau drew on for the Lecoq mysteries. The roman feuilletonists of the 1840s and 1850s, the casebook mysteries of the 1850s and 1860s, and the sensation novels of the 1860s all provided different elements for Gaboriau to use. The figure of Lecoq was inspired by Eugène François Vidocq (see: The Great Detective); Gaboriau took biographical details from Vidocq and from Balzac’s Monsieur Vautrin (see: Father Goriot). So neither Gaboriau’s approach, his novels, nor his main detective character can be described as wholly original to him.

But using antecedents as a way to deny an author credit for his work is the critical equivalent of a cheap shot. What should be considered is what Gaboriau did that was new and different. Gaboriau drew on Poe and on other genres for elements in his work. But Gaboriau also made use of elements which Poe never did. Gaboriau made his mysteries novel-length, rather than short stories. This seems a simple thing now, but at the time it was a novelty. The Proto-Mystery novels which preceded The Lerouge Affair contain mysteries and detecting characters, but they were not written by their authors as mysteries. Those authors did not have the idea of a novel-length mystery when they began writing their novels. Gaboriau did. Similarly, the Proto-Mystery authors wrote novels about the web of relations between the victims of crime, the suspects in the crime, and the perpetrators of the crime. These novels highlighted contemporary issues and told stories. Gaboriau made the focus of his work the detective, the crime, the criminal, and the solving of the crime. And Gaboriau showed how this could be done at novel-length. Gaboriau drew out the details of the detective’s investigation over the length of the novel rather than compressing them into the space of a short story.

The concept of the Lecoq stories was of a problem, the crime, which could be solved through deduction, observation, and analysis. Although Gaboriau does not play fair in the way that modern readers have become accustomed to–not all of the clues in Gaboriau’s mysteries are available to the reader, so that the reader cannot always anticipate the solution to the crime and the identity of the guilty party–this concept, which Gaboriau took in imitation of Poe, was different from what Gaboriau’s predecessors used. Unlike later puzzle plot authors, Gaboriau emphasized the detection aspect of the plot rather than the puzzle itself. Too, Lecoq’s enemies took precautions and attempted to mislead Lecoq with false clues which pointed at innocents as the perpetrators, so the Lecoq stories became duels between Lecoq and his enemies, much as Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartright dueled with Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. This was another departure from Gaboriau’s predecessors.

The Lecoq mysteries are in many ways police procedurals, realistic and accurate portrayals of how police work is actually done. The Lecoq mysteries have been described as the first police procedurals, but this is not entirely true. The casebook mysteries were prototypical versions of police procedural stories. But the Lecoq mysteries had the highest profile to that date of any of the police procedurals, and presented more detail than their predecessors as well as de-emphasizing the social background of the detective in favor of a greater emphasis on detection and methods. The realism of the Lecoq mysteries and the fact that the crimes could easily be committed in real life were influential on other French mystery writers for several decades.

Lecoq follows previous French detective characters in his eye for detail and in his extreme elation or depression over success or failure. Gaboriau had Lecoq use several methods of detection that have since become standards, including creating a plaster cast of a footprint, using a striking clock as evidence of the time a crime occurred, and testing to see whether a bed has been slept in. The texts themselves differ on whether Lecoq is a reformed criminal, like Vidocq, or whether that notion was one with which Lecoq had misled Gaboriau. Gaboriau’s use of a map in Monsieur Lecoq was the first use of multimedia in a mystery, something which would later become widespread. Anna Katherine Green, in her Ebenezer Gryce novels (see: The Leavenworth Case), made great use of this and influenced other writers because of it. Green was greatly influenced by Gaboriau–Gaboriau’s novels were quickly translated and published in America and became popular–and copied his police procedural approach, the melodramatic family tragedy elements, and the emphasis on detection over the puzzle of the crime.

Green was not the only author influenced by Gaboriau. The Gaboriau novels were reviewed in England as soon as they were published in France and were widely read in England. Arthur Conan Doyle read them, and his Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries) was influenced by the character of Lecoq. Holmes was influenced by writers besides Gaboriau, but Doyle took aspects of Lecoq’s personality for Holmes and repaid Gaboriau in the same way that he repaid Poe: by having Holmes, in “A Study in Scarlet,” mock the character he was modeled on:

“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 textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid.”3 

This was Doyle’s idea of a joke–he was actually a great fan of Gaboriau and Lecoq. Doyle took from Gaboriau the ability of Tabaret and Lecoq to look at a crime scene and make detailed and accurate deductions based on brief observations. As one character says of Tabaret, “He manages to invent a story that will correspond exactly with the situation. He professes, with the help of one single fact, to be able to reconstruct all the details of an assassination, as a savant pictures an antediluvian animal from a single bone.”4 Lecoq’s elderly mentor, Pére Tabaret, is shrewd and solves cases without leaving his lodgings, as Holmes does. Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” draws heavily upon the opening scenes of Monsieur Lecoq in which Lecoq reconstructs a crime based on a close examination of the crime scene. And the denouement of Collins’ The Moonstone is a Gaboriau convention.

The Lecoq novels are in many ways modern mysteries. They are about sex and murder and family scandal. They are well-plotted and thanks to Gaboriau's intensive research they display a large amount of detail about crime and the legal/police procedures of the French during that era. They convey a good deal of knowledge about the Paris of the era as well, its boulevards and underworld and jail cells. Gaboriau spends a significant amount of time following Lecoq and showing his methods. Unlike later mystery novelists Gaboriau is also a distinctive stylist whose use of the French language is remarkable; he has not, regrettably, been well served by his translators. But Gaboriau’s influences affected his style as well as his content. Gaboriau was particularly influenced by the romans feuilleton writers who preceded him, including Paul Féval, with his Black Coats Adventures, Eugène Sue, with his The Mysteries of Paris, and Ponson du Terrail, with his Rocambole Adventures. So Gaboriau’s work has substantial elements of the romans feuilleton and sensation fiction, including too great a reliance on coincidence and a surfeit of melodrama. For all that, though, Gaboriau’s novels make for entertaining reading, even with their fustian and excessive verbiage.

Gaboriau was one of several nineteenth century French authors who created an inter-connected fictional universe. The first to do this was Honoré de Balzac, in his ninety-novel La Comédie Humaine sequence (see: Father Goriot). Other writers who connected their works in this way include Paul D’Ivoi (see: The Voyages Excentrique Novels) and Jules Verne (see: Robur the Conqueror, Twenty Thousand League Under the Sea). Characters from several of Gaboriau’s non-Lecoq works appear in the Lecoq novels, so that eleven of Gaboriau’s novels are linked together.

Recommended Edition

Print: Émile Gaboriau, The Lecoq Edition. New York: Collier, 1908.


For Further Research

Guillaume Foussard, “The Emergence of French Crime Fiction During the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Publishing Culture 4 (May 2015): 1-9.


1 Émile Gaboriau, Le Crime d’Orcival, Project Gutenburg, accessed Oct. 30, 2018,

2 Émile Gaboriau, Le Petit Vieux de Batignolles, qtd. in Jessica Mann, Deadlier Than the Male: An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing (Exeter, UK: David & Charles, 2015), 101.

3 Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Study in Scarlet," in Leslie Klinger, ed., The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 37.

4 Émile Gaboriau, The Lerouge Affair (New York: Caldwell, 1908), 654.