Eugène François Vidocq

The idea of detection and the figure of the detective that would eventually stand at the center of the genre were introduced in the early nineteenth century by a Frenchman, Francois-Eugene Vidocq  (1775 – 1857) in his Memoirs of Vidocq (1827), now thought to have been ghost-written. Having served as a soldier, privateer, smuggler, inmate, and secret police spy, Vidocq at age twenty-four credited himself with a duel for every year of his life. The Paris police accepted his offer of his “security services” in 1812, and shortly he established his own department, the Surete, which became the French equivalent of the American F.B.I. In a typical year, William Ruehlmann reports,

“Vidocq had twelve men working for him, and between them they made 811 arrests, including 15 assassins, 341 thieves and 38 receivers of stolen property.” 1

When Vidocq’s Memoirs were published in France in 1828, they were immediately popular and translated into English. Honore de Balzac modelled the character of Vautrin on him in Le Pere Goriot (1833), and Victor Hugo did the same with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables(1862).


Interest in England in “crime stories” blended with a strong, existing genre called the gothic novel. Most scholars attribute this genre to Horace Walpole, whose Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, established the horror story, to which Mary Shelley added scientific aspects with Frankenstein (1818). The gothic influence is said to account for the dark settings, unfathomable motivations, and preoccupation with brilliant or unexpected solutions in the detective/mystery genre. Among English writers, Vidocq most influenced Charles Dickens, who used detail and character from Vidocq’s Memoirs for his Great Expectations (1861).

A detailed Wikipedia entry on Vidocq