From top, Vidocq plaque, William Fleischer, Nicholas Bayard
Vidocq Takes it On
By Richard Carreño
Many cities have well-known detectives, gumshoes, private eyes, what-have-you, associated with their good names. Most ballyhooed, no doubt, is Sherlock Holmes, of 55B Baker Street, London. But who can visit Honolulu, and not think of Charlie Chan and his No. 1 Son? Think Humphrey Bogart: think Sam Spade of San Francisco. New York has Nero Wolfe, and, thanks to local author Lisa Scottoline, even Philly has investigating dicks, ahem, heroines like Marta Richter, Mary DiNunzio, and Bennie Rosato. The list goes on.
What they have in common, of course, is that all the above are fictional characters. I know, I know, members of Sherlock's fan club, the Baker Street Irregulars -- there's a branch in Philly, proving how popular the cocaine-addled private detective is -- believe that there was a Holmes. It's part of their schtick.
But are there any investigators -- of great legend, that is -- who in their hometown share both real and fictional lives? Surely, yes. But who?
This is where a smallish brass plaque, reading enigmatically just 'Vidocq Society,' affixed to a townhouse not far from the Curtis Institute, comes in. It is also there, at 1704 Locust Street, the locale of this spit-polished and gleaming plaque, where our Vidocq story begins.
And where it might well have ended if it weren't for a telephone call I received soon after I spotted the sign. On the phone was a publicist with William Morrow in New York, who was flogging a new book, The Black Tower by Louis Bayard. A review perhaps? I knew something about Bayard, a Washington-based book critic for Salon.com, and I agreed to give his novel a look-see. It was an open-and-shut case when the Morrow rep told me the book was a fictionalized account (are you ready for this?) of Eugène François Vidocq. Vidocq? As in Society, perchance?
'He was history's first detective,' she told me, with all the earnest over-confidence of a freshman English major.
The Time: Early 19th century.
The Place: Paris.
The Philly Connection: Young Vidocq (pronounced 'VEE-DOC', by the way), had stolen money from his father's bakery, and was preparing to abscond to Philadelphia. But a complication arose, involving an equally young woman he was traveling with. When they wound up in the port city of Bordeaux, just before their ship was about to sail, she drugged, mugged, and robbed him, leaving the callow Vidocq without a sou and the rest of intriguing his tale to history.
History, as in Edgar Allen Poe and Victor Hugo, that is. My exuberant book flack went all Lit 101 on me. 'Vidocq was the model for the Inspector in Poe's Murders of Rue Morgue. And he inspired both Jean ValJean and Inspector Javert in Hugo's Les Misérables,' she added.
Who knew? No Inspector Clouceau, this!
An Internet search provided more: Born in 1775, Vidocq was a reformed convict who founded, in 1812, the world's first police detective bureau, the Sûreté in Paris. He was profane, a brigand, a master of disguise, and a genius in the use of deduction -- well before Sherlock -- in tracking down the bad guys.
'Actually,' the rep continued, 'Louis will be in Philadelphia, and you can interview him.'
The Black Tower is a quick, entertaining read. Bayard cleverly combines the myth of the living Dauphin, the son and heir to the beheaded Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette, with a mystery involving Vidocq. Is the Dauphin actually alive? Has he returned to Paris? Bayard puts Vidocq -- at times sympathetic, at times villianous -- on the case.
I met the 45-year-old Bayard at a stuffy drinks party at the Union League, sponsored by the Alliance Française. Tie-less, and in a navy, pin-striped sportscoat, Bayard was as casual in demeanor, as he was in dress. 'You know, one of my early Huguenot ancestors was one of the first mayors of New York,' he was telling the group. (I checked: Mayor Nicholas Bayard, 1685-1686).
Later that evening, a friend introduced me to William L. Fleisher, ex-FBI special agent, ex U.S. Customs agent, ex-Philly cop.
I met Fleisher on the second floor of 1704 Locust Street a few days later. That's right, the Vidocq Society.
'What got me interested [in Vidocq] was that I had this idea that a victim and their families were victimized over and over again. This was before victim's rights. The system was designed to beat up on victims,' said the portly, 64-year-old Fleisher, now a private detective and someone, despite his dapper appearance, you'd nail as a cop in any dark alley.
'It just so happened that I was with Frank Bender [a colleague and friend] for lunch, and we talking "cold cases," interesting cases. When we were done with lunch, I felt very intellectually stimulated.
'I was reading Modern Criminal Investigation, a book for police detectives, and I had learned about Vidocq. He was an interesting character, and no one had heard of him.'
That clinched it.
Fleisher and Bender decided to honor Vidocq by naming their new 'cold case' club -- borne from that luncheon -- after the Parisian detective. That was 1990. Almost 20 years later, the Society has 82 full members and about 50 'special' members around the world. Monthly club meetings are held in the Public Ledger Building. People come from everywhere.
Not surprisingly, given the nature of the club's mission, members are generally drawn from law enforcement, the legal business, and the forsenic medicine field.
Still, why Vidocq?
'Vidocq, to me, is the symbol of redemption,' Fleisher said, signaling what I sensed was something deep-seated in his own psyche. 'Cons are risk-takers. Vidocq was the ultimate risk-taker. He was a very bright kid. A bad kid can become a good cop.'
Bayard also cast Vidocq in the same light. I had an early-morning coffee with the author, just before he had to catch his train back to Washington.
'It was after reading Murders of Rue Morgue that, for the first time, I heard his name. The more I learned about him, the more I was intrigued. He was corrupt. But also dedicated to his work.'
Bayard was sporting in the lapel of his navy-colored sports coat, the same one he had worn to the Union League, a Vidocq Society rosette. Voici, the newest member.
The Black Tower, Louis Bayard, William Morrow, 352 pp, $24.95.
(This story appeared in a somewhat different form at BroadStreetReview.com).