The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Maximilien Heller, or the Philanthropist Without Christ (1871)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Maximilien Heller, or the Philanthropist Without Christ (original: Maximilien Heller, ou le philanthrope sans le saviour) was written by Henry Cauvain. Cauvain (1847-1899) was a tax inspector in the French city of Annecy who wrote popular fiction on the side.
Maximilien Heller is an amateur detective. He lives in a cluttered apartment, uses opium, and sits in his armchair throughout the day and night, writing monographs on arcane subjects. He is tall, thin, and pale, and is a master of disguise and a fine shot. Before the events of Maximilien Heller he has not left his room for two years. Maximilien Heller is narrated by Heller’s friend, a nameless doctor, and is about Heller’s defeat of a brilliant criminal doctor who has committed the seemingly perfect locked-room murder.
Maximilien Heller is an oddity in the history of detective fiction. Reprinted seven times before 1925, and then in 1930 under the title L'Aiguille qui tue, but not translated into English until the twenty-first century, its hero’s similarities to Sherlock Holmes have aroused critical comment since 1974, when Michel Lebrun noted the two characters’ commonalities.1 Despite there not being an English-language version of Maximilin Heller in his lifetime, it’s certainly possible that Arthur Conan Doyle read Maximilien Heller before writing any of the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries:
However, as Doyle was fluent in French as well as German, there is a possibility that he read this novel in the original French while he was staying at Feldkirch, Switzerland, from 1875 to 1876. His uncle Michael Conan was staying in Paris and young Conan Doyle sent him a poem written at Stonyhurst. The second edition of the novel had just been published in 1875, and his uncle might have sent him a copy as a present. Or, when young Doyle called on his uncle in Paris bearing a book by Edgar Allan Poe in 1876, he might have recommended to his nephew that he read Maximilien Heller.2
On this possibility a number of hypotheses and suppositions—usually written by French critics—have been spun, about the debt Conan Doyle supposedly owes Cauvain, and about Conan Doyle as a plagiarist of Cauvain. But the fact is that, despite the similarities between Heller and Holmes, Maximilien Heller fits poorly as something that Conan Doyle would have copied. The origins of Sherlock Holmes are fairly well-known at this point. The immediate inspiration was Dr. Joseph Bell (1837-1911), a medical teacher at the university at Edinburgh who taught Conan Doyle and whose observations and deductions were Holmesian. But as Conan Doyle wrote in his autobiography, “Gaboriau had rather attracted me by a neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes.”3 Heller and Holmes are similar—but this only means that Cauvain and Conan Doyle drew upon the same inspirations, notably the French tradition of Great Detective narratives (including Gaboriau’s Lecoq—see The Lerouge Affair), Eugène François Vidocq (see: The Great Detective), and ultimately Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin (see The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries). (Maximilien Heller was written only six years after Baudelaire’s final translation of Poe into French was published). Guillaume Foussard, in fact, writes that “Maximilien Heller…was highly inspired from Vidocq’s life, notably in the capacity of the main character to change his appearance in order to foil criminals.”4 Holmes got his knack for disguise from the same source. Complicating matters by claiming plagiarism on Conan Doyle’s part is a violation of Occam’s Razor—although it should be noted that this is not the first claim of plagiarism against Conan Doyle.5
No, Maximilien Heller was not one of Conan Doyle’s sources for Holmes. But it deserves recognition as a distinctive Great Detective novel, especially as it was published at a time when the dominant mode in French detectives was more action-oriented crime-solvers like Gaboriau’s M. Lecoq.
Print: Henri Cauvain, The Killing Needle, transl. John Pugmire. New York: Locked Room International, 2014.
For Further Research
Susumu Kobayashi, “Had Conan Doyle Read Henry Cauvain’s Maximilien Heller?” CADS no. 75 (May 2017): 41-44.
1 Michel Lebrun, “Les Alchimistes du Roman Policier,” Europe no. 542 (June 1974): 138-143.
2 Susumu Kobayashi, “Had Conan Doyle Read Henry Cauvain’s Maximilien Heller?” CADS no. 75 (May 2017): 43.
3 Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 74.
4 Guillaume Foussard, “The Emergence of French Crime Fiction during the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Publishing Culture 4 (May 2015): 4.
5 Briefly: author Bertram Fletcher Robinson was key to the creation of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Conan Doyle admitted as much in print. But Robinson was quoted posthumously as having told Cambridge undergraduates that he “wrote most of the first installment for The Strand,” an assertion backed up by Robinson’s coachman but with which Conan Doyle strongly disagreed. Ben Macintyre, “Whodunnit? Detectives Reopen the Strange Case of Conan Doyle and the Poisoned Journalist,” The Times (United Kingdom) (Sept. 17, 2005): 34.