At that very time Paris was the scene of the most heinous atrocities

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.

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13 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brown, Andrew (translator), Central European Literature, Crime Fiction, German Literature, Hoffmann, E.T.A., Novellas, Romantic Literature

13 responses to “At that very time Paris was the scene of the most heinous atrocities

  1. I’m still glad I read it even though I wasn’t crazy about it. And as you say the length helped. I get annoyed by hysteria in novels, and after a while the text starts screaming at me. I can take the hysteria if it’s ameliorated by another character.

    Another thing I’ve noticed from the few Hesperus editions I’ve read (note the word FEW), I think the translator’s information is much more valuable than the big name foreword.

  2. And Madame de Scuderi led me to read Celebrated Crimes: The Marquise de Brinvilliers by Dumas–a book I’d intended to read for a long time. The two books actually went very well together.

  3. I read this book several years ago, and I remembered nothing of it except the title. I suppose that, like you, I had a nice but not unforgettable time reading it.

    I remember I bought it because of the title : I knew of Mlle de Scudéry’s “Carte du Tendre”, (“Love Map”) a concept I found interesting and I was curious about a novel in which she would be a character. I guess I haven’t changed much, since I lately read Stephanie Barron’s “Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor”, where Jane Austen is the detective ! The same causes produced the same effects : disappointment. Don’t waste your time.

    According to the foreword of my French edition, you are right : Mlle de Scudéry is the first detective story.

  4. The translator’s information was excellent, a really good analysis of the more interesting aspects of the book. Enough so he caused me to reconsider it to a degree.

    I’ll check out the Marquise, you blogged that didn’t you? I seem to recall you did.

    Bookaround, the first Western one. The Chinese had them at least as early as the 18th Century, but there’s no link to my knowledge between theirs and ours – it’s a case of parallel evolution.

    The love map is discussed in the introduction here but only briefly. It sounds like something that would have perhaps made a better read at the time. The Barron sounds well worth avoiding.

    You might be interested in my Vivant Denon review – I link from it to several other reviews too and you could read it of course in the original French (if you haven’t already). It’s called Point de Lendemain in French I believe, No Tomorrow in the English.

  5. Yes, I did blog the Marquise. I read it on the kindle.

    I have a copy of No Tomorrow here that I will get to one of these days.

    In the meantime Post Office is up next. That book is hilarious. Nasty. But still hilarious.

  6. Talking about Chinese mysteries, have you tried Robert Van Gulik ? Do you like historica
    I never heard about Point de Lendemain, I read your review. It seems interesting.

    By the way, I have “Somebody Owes Me Money”. It seems out of print in French, I hope the English version isn’t too difficult for me. I’m on a business trip, train drivers are on strike tomorrow, the duration of my journey back home is uncertain. According to your review it sounds the perfect book to have in that kind of situation.

  7. Sorry for the unfinished sentence. I meant to ask if you like historical detective stories such as Steven Saylor’s Gordianus.

  8. I don’t as a rule go for historical crime. My big exceptions however are the Van Gulik novels which are wonderful and the Saylor Gordianus novels which are also excellent. I’m a big fan of both.

    Somebody Owes Me Money was made for the sort of situation you describe. Do let me know how you get on with it.

  9. marco

    You should try the more fantastical works of Hoffmann. The Sandman (in the collection Night Pieces), The Golden Pot, Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Meister Floh.

  10. Max, I started Somebody Owes Me Money.
    I’m alright with the language, there aren’t too many words I don’t know. It’s better to read the original version anyway. It’s really funny, I can almost hear the voice over it would be if it were a movie. I loved the description of Chet’s father challenging insurance policies, it’s such a funny idea.
    I’ll keep you posted (ah ah, that was easy, but too tempting)

  11. Thanks for the tip marco, I’ll have a look for them.

    bookaround, I see you’ve finished the Westlake, I’ll comment on that there.

  12. Thanks for the forewarnings. I rarely read detective novels and endless swooning gets on my nerves, but given that it’s a short novel that can broaden my minimal knowledge of German literature and I can read it online, I think I’ll give it a go.

    You may be interested in reading the Woman in White or the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I liked the first one better as it’s more of a suspense thriller. They’re considered to be among the first of English detective novels and forerunners for many of the devices used in later mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. I think it’s a shame that those were the only two Collins wrote in that genre.

  13. I have thought about Wilkie Collins actually, you’re right, I should pick those up.

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