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Émile Gaboriau's The Widow Lerouge

The Widow Lerouge (the original French text was published in 1866 as L’Affaire Lerouge) is regarded as the first French crime novel (Platten 2009, 19). An important milestone in the history of detective fiction, it is also an eminently readable mystery novel. Growing up, Émile Gaboriau showed early signs of literary talent but did not otherwise distinguish himself or receive a degree (Albert 1998, 400). After serving for a short time in the army, he became a writer and journalist. Before turning to mystery novels, he wrote fiction, biographies of famous actresses, and historical studies. Although his output was prodigious, his early writing was mediocre. But his early writing and journalist articles served as an excellent apprenticeship to his later work (Albert 1998, 400).

It was The Widow Lerouge that made Gaboriau famous. Typical of the publishing trends of the era, the novel was first serialized in French daily and reprinted in a leading journal before appearing in book format. As early as 1870, it was translated into English, Italian, and German. Police detective Lecoq, who plays a minor role in The Widow Lerouge, became a major figure in three of Gaboriau’s subsequent novels.

The Widow Lerouge begins with the discovery of Claudine Lerouge’s murdered body. Chief of Police Gevrol and amateur detective Tabaret each begin to investigate the crime. Soon they discover that a highly respected Count and his family are involved. Scandal, intrigue, and cover-ups dominate the action.

The novel has been called melodramatic and sensationalist. Gaboriau’s plots are certainly filled with dramatic incidents. He makes ample use of techniques and motifs that were popular in Victorian novels. Babies being swapped at birth, paired antithetical situations, exposés of scandalous situations in the nobility, and dramatic reversals of fortune fill the narrative and heighten the intrigue.

Gaboriau has also been criticized as verbose and digressive. Typical of the fiction of his day, his novels are lengthy. He worked as secretary to novelist Paul Féval, a writer with a penchant for “long, interwoven, sometimes rambling narratives about crime, deception and the melodramatic sensualities of mid-century Paris” (Knight 2004, 48). Féval’s influence can be detected in all Gaboriau’s writing.

When Arthur Conan Doyle began writing at the end of the 19th century, he used a more concise style of narrative that appealed to contemporary audiences (Albert 1998, 406). The detective novel subsequently adopted this more succinct style. Elements of the detective novel not directly contributing to the mystery were henceforth eliminated.

Gaboriau did, however, shape the direction of the novel with his choice of detectives. Together with Poe and Collins, he set the pattern for Golden-Age detective rivalries (Symons 1992, 55). Gevrol, “the archetypal police drudge, devoid of imagination and jealous of the inspired work of Tabaret and Lecoq,” becomes the model of police detectives throughout the 1920s and 30s (Albert 1998, 401).

Gaboriau’s influence on later mystery novelists was considerable. Symons argues that he was a hack writer transformed by the possibilities of the new detective novel form (1992, 52). Anyone who reads The Widow Lerouge will agree with Knight’s assessment of it as a “much overlooked major work” (2004, 50).

Albert, Walter. “Émile Gaboriau (1832-1873).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 399-407. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Gaboriau, Émile. The Widow Lerouge. 1866. New York: Scribner, 1902.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Platten, David. “Origins and Beginnings: The Emergence of Detective Fiction in France.” In French Crime Fiction, edited by Claire Gorrara, 14-35. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.