Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, January 29, 2011


THE MYSTERY OF ORCIVAL (1867) – Emile Gaboriau

I want to show how to approach an older book properly, and I'll use this as my model, partly 'cause I've just finished it and it's great, partly because some of the great things about it directly relate to Doyle and some of the point I raised with him, partly because it's a good model to talk about how to approach books like these aesthetically.

Gaboriau is a forgotten author nowadays, but it wasn't always the case. He was once so famous that in A STUDY IN SCARLET Holmes feels like he needs to measure himself in part against Lecoq, Gaboriau's detective hero. He's dropped as a peer of Poe, for Chrissakes. And I ought to take the moment here to acknowledge that some of the things I laid at Doyle's feet last time I was wrong about. I implied that many of the shifts in tone in Doyle were there because basically he didn't care much for the mystery part of what he was writing, that wasn't where his action was. I still think that's at least partly true, but there's a much simpler explanation for it as well – one that ironically shines a much harsher light on Doyle.

He's simply copying Gaboriau. The structure of many of the Holmes stories, particularly the longer stories, apes the structure of things like ORCIVAL, where the detection is contained and then there's a flashback explaining what the hell happened. Sorry, Emile.

Doyle owes a hell of a lot to Gaboriau, in fact, which we'll touch on in a sec, but for now all I want to point is that this is an early detective novel, arguably the first one (it came out the year before the usual contender, Wilkie Collins's THE MOONSTONE). I think this endless chasing of who's first is ultimately counterproductive, aesthetic ideas tend to just be in the air, the detective novel is as good an example of it as any, but it IS interesting that I can go into my failing-Borders and buy a copy of Collins (actually his complete output, including now unreadable novels like ARMADALE) in classic additions, whereas Gaboriau is forgotten to all but the hardest-core mystery fans.


I picked this up free for my Kindle app on my personal computer. I remain convinced that right now the best function of ebooks is old titles like this. There's no financial incentive for most presses to reissue them, the print on demand or old stuff is pricey. Why not? (I do try to support places like House of Stratus who are reissuing in nice pb editions guys like Wallace, or R. Austin Freeman, or Orczy.) I didn't have overwhelming expectations for it, I had read in the past Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq, which I remember generally liking but not thinking was all that. That's a big book, though, with an entire second volume devoted to “why it happened”.

This is an extraordinary book on a number of levels. Without overdrumming the historical stuff to death, it ought to be said that ORCIVAL contains, at least in embryonic form, the following tropes which would reappear in mystery fiction for years to come:

a murder at a country house
a detective who is a genius, associated with the police but in some ways is not “of” the police. (Lecoq almost seems like a police organization within a police organization, he has his own men, investigates crimes his own way, has his own enemies, sees himself as a seperate force that can sometimes act autonomously, to the dictates of his conscience.
In very embryonic form a Watson, a helper who's the readers gateway into the world of the story.
The mystery novel used for social criticism.


a femme fatale
a noirish plot (second section of book) that feels transposed directly from, I kid you not, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE.
A concentration on police procedure, on the “how catch 'em?” question
A meditation on the difference between “law” and “justice” (a common theme of the crime novel)

And that's just off the top of my head. Now, mind, none of this makes the novel good – but it sure makes it interesting, and for this reason alone this book and author deserve to be rediscovered alongside Collins.

So we acknowledge the historical importance, but we put that aside. Does this book work as a novel? And amazingly, the answer is yes.

Doyle is an important comparison here. Reading ORCIVAL makes me regard the Holmes stories in an even darker light, Doyle quite evidently owes Gaboriau a hell of a lot, not just in plot structure but in characterization as well. Holmes now feels to me like a transposition of Lecoq with the personality removed.

But anyway. Compare the structure of ORCIVAL alongside SCARLET and we immediately see the structure pays off for Gaboriau in ways it just doesn't for Doyle. If there's a theme to the book, it's something like “things are not always what they seem” and the structure of the book is that of an onion, there is a concerted effort to peel things away, layer by layer, until we get at the truth. That's the plot as we the reader experience it: the plot as the viewpoint character understands it (ie, the story's timeline once all the pieces are known) is that of a circle: he fails to take an action, is sent on a nightmarish journey, and ends failing again to take the same action, although this time the figure who prevented him now aids him.

I'm talking elliptically because I don't want to spoil any of the pleasures of this very good book, but let's just say it is very cunningly plotted, and things that seem somewhat awkward at first have a reason for being where they are. It's also unified: the second section is told in flashback, but there's a reason for it to be told that way, and the audience still participates in the story even as the backstory is being told to them. Similarily the final layers of the onion do not fall away until the final pages, there are final motivational revelations in the concluding chapters of the book.

Lecoq is a genuine stab at a character, too, which already makes him more interesting than the jumble of neurotic tics which is Holmes. He's self-pitying at times, boastful, proud, quick to anger when certain sore subjects are brought up, capable of making mistakes and willing to fess up to them.

And there's some genuine suspense in the book. The section where Lecoq reconstructs the murder is as good as this kind of thing gets, the fact that it was written in 1866 is a revelation. The second section has a doom-laden, noirish atmosphere and while the ending is never in doubt, there's a twist there that I didn't really see coming and rather enjoyed. The third section, more police-procedural, even has it's moments, it leads up to a final confrontation in a rooming house that's very well orchestrated.

All in all, a great book even if it had all been done before, I think. The fact that it hadn't makes this a classic, well worth anyone's time.


Blogger Wexfordian said...

Thanks for this very impressive piece. I'm reading Orcival right now and really enjoying it; it seems so much more modern somehow than Scarlet or anything by Doyle. One problem I have reading Gaboriau is that I read his works in translation, when it is always more instructive to read in the original language. Maybe this is one reason for his being overshadowed now by early English, American, and Irish writers.

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