Books: 'I am Vidocq, and I arrest you!'

The Crime And Mystery Book: A Reader's Companion by Ian Ousby, Thames and Hudson pounds 12.95
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In France it is known as the roman policier, though as Ian Ousby points out, it may not feature any policemen. Italy has its racconto poliziesco, and Spain its novela policaca, but the Germans put the emphasis firmly on the malefactor with their Kriminalroman, generally shortened to Krimi. What we don't tend to call them nowadays is "tales of ratiocination", the term favoured by Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe is generally credited with creating the first detective story in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". As well as giving the world the first literary detective worthy of the name, C August Lupin, Poe presents an early example of the classic locked-room mystery. Lupin correctly deduces that the crazed killer of two women in their home is an escaped ourang- outang. Ousby reproduces (the book is lavishly supplied with illustrations) an arty 1919 print in which the beast resembles an enraged mop waving a razor.

The next stage in the evolution of the literary detective is Dickens's Inspector Bucket, though Bleak House is so convoluted in plot that it's difficult to work out what Bucket knows or what he's up to at any stage.

More offbeat is the true story of Eugene-Francois Vidocq, the first head of the French Surete. Born in 1775, he was a colourful character, runaway soldier and dueller, and became infamous for breaking out of prison on numerous occasions. He first joined the Parisian police force as an informer, and was appointed chief when the Surete was formed in 1812. Ousby reminds us not to lay too much store by his memoirs, ghosted by two hack journalists, since they altered his height by four or five inches at will and gave him a personal arrest rate of almost two a day.

Ousby's enjoyable compendium moves swiftly on from these beginnings to analyse "The Great Detective", from his splendid first words to Watson in A Study in Scarlet ("You have been in Afghanistan, I believe") to a chapter entitled "The Afterlife of Sherlock Holmes: pastiche, parody, pseudo-scholarship and (inevitably) deconstruction". "The Golden Age" takes in such gentlemanly sleuths as Lord Peter Wimsey (inset, played by Edward Petherbridge) and such set-ups as the country-house murder, while "The Hard-Boiled School" analyses Spillane, Chandler and Hammett.

On the way are many excellent diversions, such as a state-by-state map of American fictional PIs, a round-up of dysfunctional feminist sleuths, and Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments of detective fiction, most of which still hold true. The detective must declare his clues, "twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them," and "not more than one secret room or passage is allowable". Perhaps commandment number five is a little harsh, though understandable: "No Chinaman must figure in the story."