E.T.A. Hoffman’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri is the earliest Western detective story that I’m aware of. Like many people I’d thought that honour went to Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Like many people, I was wrong.
Mademoiselle de Scudéri was published in 1819, 22 years before Poe’s famous short story. It features an elderly amateur detective, overzealous police so certain of their theory of the crime that they risk a miscarriage of justice, and a series of apparently inexplicable murders. We’re in definite Christie territory here.
I heard about the book from Guy Savage’s blog His Futile Preoccupations. He described it here as interesting but disappointing. That was a good warning to have, because I was interested but knowing upfront that it wasn’t a novel to inspire love meant that I wasn’t disappointed.
So, what’s it about? Seventeenth Century Paris is recovering from an epidemic of poisonings. A special tribunal located in the Place de Grève has brought the culprits to justice, but using brutal methods. Paris is awash with paranoia and increasingly it’s the tribunal itself that people are frightened of. All this by the way is pretty much historically accurate.
Against this backdrop a new wave of terror emerges.
While the blood of the guilty and the merely suspect flowed in streams on the Place de Grève, and the poisonings finally became less and less frequent, a scourge of another sort appeared, spreading renewed consternation. A gang of thieves seemed determined to get its hands on all the jewels in town. No sooner had a piece of rich jewellery been bought than it mysteriously disappeared, however well it was guarded. But what was much more terrible, anyone who dared to carry jewels in the evening was robbed or even murdered on the open street or in the dark corridors of houses. Those who managed to escape with their lives testified that the blow of a fist to their heads had struck them down like a thunderbolt, and once they came round, they found they had been robbed, and were lying in a quite different place from where they had been struck.
The murder victims are all killed with a single dagger blow to the heart. The killer or killers show an almost supernatural knowledge of when men are going to meet their lovers and all too often those men never arrive or are found dead by their mistress’s house the next morning. Rumours of necromancy and black magic abound, and when a leading policeman nearly captures one of the gang only to see him disappear into an apparently solid wall the population are convinced that the criminals have the aid of Satan himself. The gang are nicknamed The Invisibles and all Paris is afraid of them (all wealthy Paris anyway, the two are often treated as if the same thing in this novel).
The tribunal ask for additional powers, the king comes near to granting them, but a short poem of Mademoiselle de Scudéri’s persuades him not to and soon after she is horrified to receive a glittering jewellery set and a letter from The Invisibles thanking her for protecting them. Her intent was just to protect the innocent from the excesses of the tribunal, but now she is involved.
I won’t recount the entire plot, so far we’re only around 20 pages or so in, but naturally the police arrest a suspect and naturally Mademoiselle de Scudéri suspects he may be innocent and that a miscarriage of justice is about to occur. Only she can see that truth, justice and good can prevail over deceit, tyranny and evil.
And if that last sentence sounded a little melodramatic then welcome to Mademoiselle de Scudéri. It’s German romantic literature. It is melodramatic. The noble of birth tend to nobility of character. Goodness within is reflected in beauty without, evil is generally reflected in ugliness. To be a lover is to be innocent.
Or perhaps not. There are subtexts here which suggest things may not be so clear. There are elements of the book I can’t discuss without spoilers but it is fair to say there are darker undercurrents. Paris may be a city of love but it’s also a city of superstition. Mademoiselle de Scudéri may seem to be proven predictably right but it’s not quite that simple. Evil is insidious and part of its power is to make us doubt that which used to seem so certain.
Mademoiselle de Scudéri is part of Hesperus Press’s “100 Pages” series of short classic novels. It’s a quick afternoon’s read, better yet a quick evening’s read since although it’s not a ghost story it’s best read as if it were one – when it’s dark and the normal world seems a little removed. It’s very much of its time and it’s literary tradition and so I’d also suggest being prepared for a lot of high emotion. By way of example here’s the police’s chief suspect, Olivier, telling his side of events to the good Mademoiselle:
Olivier was too disconsolate to speak. He buried his head in his hands and shook with sobs. Finally, forcing himself to fight down the wild grief that had gripped him, he continued his story.
Half the conversations in the book take place through tears. Characters swoon a lot too. Some may exclaim. It’s that sort of novel. In a longer work it would get irritating but at this length it’s bearable enough. The plot bears no real scrutiny and depends on the police missing a really pretty obvious connection between all the crimes; the characters are thin; the true culprit is obvious and the explanation for the seeming guilt of the accused man frankly a touch preposterous but then it is the first Western detective novel. These are all accusations one could throw at a lot of its spiritual descendants.
Guy ended his review saying that he was sure there were plenty of people who would love this story, but that he didn’t. I’m glad I read it. I found it genuinely interesting as a period piece and as an example of a body of literature (German romantic) that I don’t know that well, but I didn’t love it either. That’s ok, I didn’t expect to. At the end of the day Mademoiselle de Scudéri is a crowd pleaser and I don’t think it’s aiming to be great literature. I think it’s aiming to be just what it is, an entertainment that amuses for a few hours and that tells a good story that raises a few questions in the reader but not too many to be uncomfortable.
Mademoiselle de Scudéri. The Hesperus edition comes with an interesting foreword by Gilbert Adair and a fascinating introduction by the translator, Andrew Brown, which explores the darker ambiguities of the novel to very good effect. Despite my reservations it’s of obvious interest for anyone interested in the roots of the crime genre and is exactly the sort of thing I look at houses like Hesperus to be publishing.