Friday, July 22, 2011

"The First Detective": A swashbuckling cop

The First Detective": A swashbuckling cop

A new book explores the life of the thief-turned-cop who paved the way for today's investigators


This article appears courtesy of The Barnes & Noble Review.

The daring costumed escapes and bedsheet-rope prison breaks of the old romances weren't merely creaky plot devices; they were also the objective correlatives of the lost politics of early modern Europe. Not yet susceptible to legislative amelioration, rules and customs that seemed both indefensible and unassailable had to be vaulted over like collapsing bridges or tunneled under like manor walls. Not only fictional musketeers but such illustrious figures as the young Casanova and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent their early years making narrow escapes from overlapping orthodoxies, swimming moats to marriages of convenience and digging their way out of prisons of privilege by dressing in drag or posing as noblemen's sons. If one ran afoul of the local clergy or some aristocratic cuckold, there were always new bishops and magistrates to charm in the next diocese or département.

In 1775 -- roughly a generation after the exploits of Rousseau and Casanova -- a prosperous baker's son named Eugène-François Vidocq was born in Arras, in northern France. Indolent and adventuresome, he embarked upon a career that in its early phase looked even more hapless and disastrous than those of his illustrious forebears.

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