Invisible Ink: No. 131 - The French

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The Independent Culture

You know the French, frightfully awkward people of course, dab hands at literature though, even in translation. Molière, Voltaire, George Sand, all that lot, but what about all the popular stuff that's vanished from print?

Funnily enough, France gained its ingrained love of the fantastique from a huge number of authors who disappeared. Amid the political upheavals of 19th-century France came the creation of the first superheroes and the sudden appearance of romans noirs, French Gothic novels. Melodramatic serials were all the rage, peaking with the arrival of the elegantly attired Rocambole by Ponson du Terrail in 1857. Before Raffles and Sexton Blake, this former villain turned hero and began fighting crime.

Five years later came the sinister Jean Diable, the menace of Scotland Yard, from the author Paul Féval, then Gaboriau's exciting Monsieur Lecoq, inspired by the real-life exploits of the criminal-turned-prefect of police Vidocq (who also inspired Edgar Allen Poe).

"The Black Coats" ran to a seven-novel saga about a criminal empire, and led to the creation of other mysterious heroes such as Kriminal, Fantômas and Judex in his hat and cloak, and powers of hypnosis. Soon the country was awash with disguised crimefighters having death-defying adventures, from Doctor Omega, Belphegor, the phantom of the Louvre, and Arsène Lupin, the gentleman burglar, to an endless number of Sherlock Holmes knock-offs. All of which was strange, because the French had largely shunned sci-fi and or anything too fantastical.

One of the most intriguing inventions was "Harry Dickson, the American Sherlock Holmes", conceived by Jean Ray. These tales – nearly 200 of them – were more wildly fantastical than anything by Conan Doyle. Many of the creations have parallels in English literature; Lupin has much in common with Raffles, while Fascinax, the investigator of the occult, seems a counterpart to Dennis Wheatley's Duc de Richelieu. These top-hatted heroes, masked villains and glamorous countesses who dashed across the rooftops of night-time Paris on missions to catch master criminals enjoyed thousands of adventures, forming an immense library of French Victoriana that continued until the Second World War, when vicarious tales of heroism in the face of plans to subjugate the nation were replaced by horrors that were all too real. Very few of these wonderful exploits have been translated into English, but lately some heroes, such as dashing Arsène Lupin, have started appearing in French films again.