MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
It takes a thief to catch a thief, and no one illustrates that adage better than Eugene-Francois Vidocq, a man who was immensely famous in 19th-century France.
Vidocq was the first director of France's Surete Nationale, their Scotland Yard, their FBI, if you will. He ran it from 1811 until 1832. Vidocq is considered the father of modern criminology, and he went on to found the first private detective agency.
And for tracking down criminals and understanding their ways, Vidocq had the perfect background: He'd been a criminal. In fact, he had an extensive history of being incarcerated and then escaping from French prisons from the days of the French Revolution into the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Vidocq is the subject of James Morton's new book, "The First Detective."
And James Morton joins us now from London. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JAMES MORTON (Author, "The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq: Criminal, Spy and Private Eye"): Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And I'd like you to explain the role that Vidocq played, first, the intersection of criminal behavior and police work that led to his becoming a star detective later on, being a jailhouse snitch, being an informant.
Mr. MORTON: Yes. What had happened was that the first 20 years of his life, he was in and out of trouble both as a young boy, then as an adult, and he was a jewel thief, a womanizer, a braggart, a swordsman. And he was - eventually, he was imprisoned a number of times. He was eventually sent to what we call the bagne, which were boats for really serious prisoners, and they were moored off French ports.
They were thoroughly disagreeable places. The people were kept in islands. And on one occasion, Vidocq managed to escape.
He returns to Paris where he's betrayed by former colleagues, and he's either going back to the bagne for a very long time or he's got to go back into a life of serious crime. And so he very cleverly - what the French call he balances(ph) - and goes to the police and says: Look, I know everybody in criminal Paris. I can do anything you want and inform on them all. Don't send me back to the bagne.
They say, well, that's something. Let's see how your information works out. We're going to put you in prison, and you can give us information from there and see how it works out. And if you do well, you stay out of the bagne; if you don't do well, you go straight back. And he did well.
SIEGEL: He did well. Is there any way that we can quantify how many people he managed to inform upon or even for that matter, later as a detective, how many cases he actually made?
Mr. MORTON: Well, he reckoned he had between 15,000 and 16,000 in his years of police service, so it was a substantial number.
SIEGEL: Now, Vidocq contributed to his own legend by writing memoirs which, as I understand from your book, were equally voluminous and unreliable.
Mr. MORTON: Absolutely. He was a bit unfortunate with his ghost writers, for a start, and there were certain rules which had to be observed if you were going to get a book, if not published, sold. So you had to have a certain amount of sex. You had to have a certain amount of adventure, really, as you do in any novel. And whether all the stories are absolutely accurate is another matter.
SIEGEL: Was there a particular success that made Vidocq famous? And I gather he was famous beyond the borders of France. He was famous in England and elsewhere in the continent. But was there a particular case he cracked that did it for him?
Mr. MORTON: I don't know that there was one particular - I think it was just the accumulation. One of the ones he did - he was an undercover man as well as everything else. He was a great man for disguises, and he disguised himself from time to time as a Russian general, a beggar, which was easy enough, a duchess, which was a bit more difficult, and he infiltrated a gang of robbers and brought them all to the guillotine.
SIEGEL: Yes. When you say that he once disguised himself as a duchess, as you remarked, there are enough instances in his memoirs of his wearing women's clothing to make one wonder if it wasn't just a penchant for disguises. Did he enjoy wearing women's clothing?
Mr. MORTON: Unfortunately, he never wrote about whether he did or not. One suspects he was - what's the word nowadays - kinky.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: He was once disguised as a nun and hid out in a farmhouse with the farmer's daughters in his nun's habit.
Mr. MORTON: Well, this is the difficulty. In those days, books had to have a certain amount of sex in them to sell, and they certainly had to have a certain number of adventures. And - rather like Casanova's memoirs, one is never quite sure how much is truth and how much was just done for the benefit of the reading public.
SIEGEL: And this really is the original character on whom any number of fictional crime solvers, detectives, sleuths are based?
Mr. MORTON: Absolutely. Vidocq is the prototype of Dupin, Edgar Allen Poe's detective. He features in Wilkie Collins. There was a very popular French detective called Lecoq by a man called Gaboriau, and you can see the resemblance of the name even - Vidocq, Lecoq; Arsene Lupin, who was tremendously popular in France, a sort of thief turned detective. And, indeed, there are some suspicion that he contributes to Sherlock Holmes.
SIEGEL: And in "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, he is the model both for Javert, the detective, but also Jean Valjean, the thief. He's both.
Mr. MORTON: That's correct, yes. He knew Hugo quite well, and he always maintained that he'd written the Court of Miracles scene in "The Hunchback of the Notre Dame," which he also claimed was the best bit of the book...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MORTON: ...as he would since he was never one to hide his light under a bushel.
SIEGEL: James Morton, the idea of the criminal crossing over to become the criminologist or the detective is interesting, but it requires a certain view of thieves and pimps and forgers that somewhere inside they're capable of behaving like you or me or perhaps that somewhere inside you and I are capable of behaving like them. Were the French especially understanding of petty thieves and other crooks back in the 19th century, or did they just not know the full story of Vidocq?
Mr. MORTON: I think they were attracted by this romantic figure because he was really quite good-looking. He certainly was a good talker, good self-presenter, and I think they were attracted by this man who has, quote, "reformed," unquote, because we always like a criminal who reforms. And, of course, one way or another, he was cleaning up Paris crime. It may not have been a thoroughly desirable way because there's no doubt he was quite capable of manufacturing cases against criminals, wouldn't be the first or the last policeman to do that. But, generally speaking, he was able to project an image in which he became enormously popular.
SIEGEL: James Morton, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MORTON: Thank you.
SIEGEL: James Morton is the author of "The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq: Criminal, Spy and Private Eye." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.