IV. Crime

I want to start with two cinematic views of crime, which both have the merit of exposing the close link between crime and the urban scene—a link that’s especially important for France. You might call these the view from the rooftop and the view from the street. In fact, the two films are circumstantially connected. For years, Jean-Pierre Melville had wanted to make a film based on an elaborate jewel heist. But when Jules Dassin preempted him by coming out with a film based on a very similar plot, Melville decided to shelve his idea for a while. Ultimately, Le Cercle Rouge appeared more than a decade later. Both films are about an ingenious heist perpetrated on a famous jewelry establishment adjacent to the Place Vendome. In the first video excerpt, we get a view from the rooftop, as two of the thieves prepare to break into the jeweler’s from above. In the second, we get the view from the street, with the head thief taking his protégé through the paces by asking him to list, from memory, all the shops on the Rue de la Paix occupying the block where the heist will take place. What the two excerpts show is how crime is based on a detailed knowledge of the urban scene. In both instances, the thieves know exactly the layout of the place they’re trying to rob. Their success depends on their ability to exploit features of the urban location of the shop (connectedness to other buildings, early morning city routine) which they know intimately.

My main point in this talk, however, will be to try to show how the depiction of crime in 19th century literature involves crossovers—from crime into normal society and then the reverse, normal society into crime. A somewhat similar point was made decades ago in the field of urban studies by Louis Chevalier, with his classic study Laboring Classes, Dangerous Classes. Chevalier showed how the 19th century Paris bourgeoisie tried to assimilate the working class of Paris to the criminal class, as a way of distancing itself from that group. But what happens in literature is slightly different: rather than erect a barrier, authors seem to be more interested in transgressing it. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what’s criminal and what’s normal. And this is precisely what the authors have in mind: a deliberate blurring of the boundaries as a way of getting us to ask what moral behavior really consists of. By showing criminal classes engaged in activity whose logic is strikingly similar to that of normal society, literature induces us to wonder whether there’s really any essential difference between us and people we took to be so very different from ourselves. Likewise, by showing how easy it is for normal society to get into what we’d normally think of as criminal behavior, authors are able to show how easy it is to slip, becoming what we thought we’d never be. And that in turn forces us to think about other people who’ve slipped, and whether they’re as culpable as we thought they were. The upshot of all this is something like a reassessment of values. Rather than thinking of these as absolute (i.e., linked to something eternal, unalterable), the nineteenth century seems to be moving toward a notion of these as merely human and hence relative. As we think of different social groups with different codes of behavior, then, we might likewise think of people having different moral values where no one set has absolute primacy. So what Nietzsche envisioned in his late years as a “Revaluation of All Values” had in fact in various ways already been taking place throughout the nineteenth century.

I want to start with the “Memoirs” of François-Eugène Vidocq, possibly the best-known criminal of the early 19th century. This master-criminal, a thief but never a murderer—as he himself proudly says—decides at some point to give up the life of crime for that of a police informer. Predictably, given his talents, it isn’t long before he becomes chief of the secret police in Paris. “It takes one to know one,” and if that’s true there couldn’t have been a better chief than Vidocq, who clearly knew every trick in the book. Unfortunately his “Memoirs” are something of a tangle, the first volume (according to Vidocq) having been somewhat rewritten by someone else during a period when he had no access to it, and the last being clearly the work of a romancier who doesn’t even bother to have Vidocq tell his story in the first person. Nonetheless, from volumes 2 and 3 it’s possible to extract at least a couple episodes that seem to have the stamp of authenticity.

The first of these involves someone named Watrin (note the similarity to Balzac’s Vautrin), the most celebrated counterfeiter in Paris. It’s almost impossible to catch him, because his movements are so elusive that no one can ever amass any evidence of his criminal activity. But Vidocq figures it out. The trick is to follow him so as to find out where he lives. Then Vidocq takes up as a lodger in the same tenement (this way he can keep better track of Watrin’s constant comings + goings). And that’s a trick Vidocq employs repeatedly. Everybody has to live somewhere. And the thing about criminals is that, just like ordinary people, they usually have a particular neighborhood, a quartier, they favor. So you first have to find out their quartier, then their exact apartment building, and then take up residence in the same place. In other words, you have to live with him, be with him, so as to get to know his movements and ways. Once Vidocq’s managed to track Watrin, he has opportunities to nab him. Nonetheless, the counterfeiter almost gets away, squeezing into a closet on the stairs of his apartment building where he’s physically inaccessible. But Vidocq outsmarts him by pretending (quite audibly) to go down the stairs so that Watrin will think he’s gone. And that’s how he finally manages to get him.

My second Vidocq story is about another famous Paris criminal named Saint-Germain, one who’s got a whole gang of robbers. This gang’s very professional—they do their work very quickly and efficiently. So the only way Vidocq can catch them in the act is to become part of their gang. But that’s not so easy. Paris gangs, as it turns out, have their own slang, their own argot, which police infiltrators usually don’t know. In addition, they’re always on the lookout for informers. So Vidocq has to disguise himself and get accepted into their gang. In that way, too, these thieves are like normal people: they’ve got their own social group, and have ways of sniffing out any outsiders who might be trying to gain entry into their group. But even after Vidocq’s done that, it’s not over. Because someone like Saint-Germain is always suspicious of new accomplices, he insists at one moment that the whole gang has to stay together until they’ve committed the robbery (i.e., no chance for anyone to get away and rat them out). A problem for Vidocq. But he gets around it by contriving to have his wife bring refreshments (beer) for the group, then slipping a message to her when he embraces her. As a result of his message, she follows him incognito and he can then drop her a message about the location of the crime. In this way the police, informed by her, are finally able to catch Saint-Germain’s gang in the act.

Balzac’s Vidocq look-alike (= Vautrin = abbé Carlos Herrera = Jacques Collin) appears in a number of places throughout the Comédie humaine, but perhaps most memorably in Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. In effect, there are 2 “courtesans” in the novel: Lucien de Rubempré (of Illusions perdues fame) as the “courtesan” of Jacques Collin, and Esther Gobseck as the “courtesan” of the Baron Nucingen, banker and wealthiest person in Paris. Here my point is that Balzac has the arch-criminal Jacques Collin coming off no worse than the Baron Nucingen (and possibly better). Unlike the Baron, Jacques Collin arguably feels a genuine love for his “courtesan” Lucien, who is in many ways Collin’s own creation. Together they use Esther Gobseck to squeeze money out of the Baron, who’s become infatuated with her after just a fleeting glimpse. Lucien needs a lot of money (60,000FF to pay off debts + 1,000,000FF to redeem the Rubempré property so he can marry Clotilde de Grandlieu). But the Baron Nucingen doesn’t really care about Esther Gobseck: after he makes love with her, she commits suicide. Arguably, there’s love everywhere in the novel except between Nucingen and Esther: between Jacques Collin and Lucien, between Lucien and Esther Gobseck. Yes, Jacques Collin and Lucien “use” Esther to raise money, but only because they have no other way to raise such an enormous sum. And no one quite anticipated Esther’s suicide, which comes about partly because of what she feels for Lucien. But the Baron’s “use” of Esther is no different from his use of many other people and things on his way to becoming the richest man in Paris. Of course, there’s an element of heartlessness in every instance of “use”: Jacques Collin has to “use” Lucien because he loves him as an embodiment of the self he could never be. But Balzac’s point, I take it, is that all these instances of “use” aren’t terribly different from each other, whether by the ultra-respectable banker or the arch-criminal, and that, if anything, Jacques Collin comes off as marginally better.

I want to shift now to the Victorian scene and, specifically, to how crime is deeply linked to identity issues. Basically, my argument here is that when you’re not sure of who or what you are, it’s a lot easier to stray from normalcy or social respectability over to criminal activity. And the author who I think exemplifies this best is Wilkie Collins. Partly because he sees identities or selves as very fluid anyway, Collins was well suited to making this point. But I think it’s also significant that Collins chose to make it especially with women. Maybe it’s because women in Victorian society have a harder time trying to create their own identity (they’re barred from most jobs and other forms of activity by which people create their own identity). In any case, it seems that once women slip or somehow lose their social identity, they enter into a kind of free fall from which it’s even harder to get that identity back. And if they have to do it themselves, the ways open to them can look awfully close to what we now think of as unethical, if not criminal, activity.

The first Collins novel I want to use to make this point is the highly intriguing No Name. It starts off with a secret: Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Vanstone weren’t legally married (because of his prior marriage). As soon as he finds out about his first wife’s death, he and Mrs. Vanstone hurry to repair the omission. But before he can remake his will, he unfortunately dies in an unexpected train accident (these plot twists Victorian novels are made of), which sadly leaves his daughters disinherited (since he wasn’t legally married to Mrs. Vanstone at the time they were born, they don’t technically have the Vanstone name). So now all the money passes to a miserly uncle, Michael Vanstone, who has absolutely no intention of giving them anything. Norah, passive, is willing to just take what comes, but Magdalen, the younger daughter, isn’t. So after Michael Vanstone dies (pretty quickly), she pursues his son Noel Vanstone, hoping to marry him under a different name and so get the family fortune back. Unfortunately she’s found out by Virginie Lecomte (Lecount), the very sharp housekeeper of Noel. These two (Magdalen and Virginie) now play a deadly cat-and-mouse game with each other, Magdalen trying to find a pretext to send Virginie off and Virginie looking for a way to expose her. Finally Magdalen manages to get Virginie off and marries Noel, but Virginie comes back and manages secretly to expose Magdalen so that Noel cuts her out of his will. Feeling the pressure from Magdalen, however, Noel dies prematurely. His money then passes to an Admiral Bartram and from him to his son George, who marries Norah. So all the money eventually comes back to the Vanstones, and Norah, who’s done nothing, actually manages to accomplish more toward that end than Magdalen, who’s only saved at the end by her marriage to a Captain Kirke.

What I find significant here is the way Magdalen—after losing her Vanstone identity—seems to be willing to engage in immoral and virtually criminal activity to achieve her objective. So she forces herself into the Vanstone household under a disguise, seduces the halpless Noel, is even willing to marry him for the money and doesn’t seem to mind hurrying him off to his death just so she can come into the Vanstone fortune. Of course we feel sorry for her and Norah—their being disinherited seems incredibly unlucky and undeserved. But is it really right that Noel Vanstone should be squeezed and pressured into dying just so Magdalen can come into money? After all, he hasn’t done anything to her to deserve such a fate: if he doesn’t want to give her the money, that’s legally his business (I’m not sure we’d all be terribly eager to do this either). More important, I’m not sure Collins feels quite right about it himself. In effect, he’s got Magdalen going all the way around the barn while her sister (who’s been just sitting still) gets in first anyway. In fact Magdalen doesn’t seem to be doing terribly well by the end of the novel: sick, haggard, depressed, she’s lucky to be rescued by Capt. Kirke. So if this is supposed to be a crime and punishment story, she doesn’t exactly look good. Nonetheless, she is saved at the end, probably because the point is that her fall from moral grace was essentially brought about by her loss of identity, more than anything in herself. For Collins, then, the point is that loss of identity can make anyone in normal society vulnerable to moral weakness and worse.

I see the same point being made slightly differently in a later Collins novel, The Law and the Lady. Valeria (Brinton) Woodville signs her name incorrectly on the marriage register (Woodville rather than Brinton)—perhaps an augury of trouble to come. In fact, though, she’s not alone, since the person she’s marrying, Eustace Woodville, is himself signing under a false name, his real name being Macallan. The reason for his concealment of his real name: an earlier notorious trial for the poisoning his wife, Sara Macallan. When Valeria finds out about all this (from Eustace), she vows to clear his name of the murder/”Not Proven” verdict that’s hung over him ever since, not so much for herself but for Eustace and her child (V.’s now pregnant). To do that, she has to question a key witness and player in the events leading up to Sara Macallan’s death, the (aptly named) Miserrimus Dexter. Miserrimus, as it turns out, was more involved than anybody realized, being himself in love with Sara Macallan and eager to discredit her her husband so as to advance himself. Unfortunately, Miserrimus Dexter’s mental state is deteriorating, and under pressure from Valeria’s questioning it goes downhill even faster. But even though she feels pity for his wickedness (because we all share it), she’s still determined to try to squeeze the info out of him. At the end, a recovered letter from Sara Macallan explains the reasons for her suicide (not feeling love from Eustace), and Dexter’s involvement in that (his showing her Eustace’s diary) also comes out.

Here, though, we have once again a situation where a young woman resorts to somewhat unethical activity to prove her point. Her putting the squeeze on Miserrimus Dexter is clearly the cause of his going down faster, nor does she seem terribly concerned. As in No Name, this is a case where all the agency—and hence, potentially, any responsibility or blame—clearly comes from the young woman rather than the ailing or hapless man. No doubt Valeria looks less culpable than Magdalen Vanstone—she’s not doing it for money, and not (at least so she says) for herself but for husband and child (always sacred in the Victorian moral framework). And Dexter is clearly guilty on some level, since his showing Sara Macallan Eustace’s diary was partly what helped to precipitate her suicide. Nonetheless, I suspect Collins isn’t entirely easy about Valeria’s doings. As in No Name, justice finally comes about not because of what she does (at least not directly) but via another route. And that would seem to suggest her activity isn’t morally so praiseworthy—otherwise it ought to have more efficacy. Nonetheless, it isn’t her fault. After all, Valeria is—like Magdalen Vanstone—a person with No Name, since the name for which she gives up her own (quite willingly, it would seem) isn’t even the real name of her husband. In that respect, we might see her—and her husband—as existing in a kind of no man’s land: the name not being genuine suggests that their identity isn’t either. And that to some extent might seem to justify her effort to clear her husband. Still, what Collins seems to want to show is how loss of identity can precipitate people into a moral no man’s land where anything goes and anything seems (but maybe isn’t) justified in the effort to gain back that identity. And, finally, how loss of identity can lead to unwitting crossovers from normalcy to criminal activity.

If all the crossovers so far from normalcy to criminal activity have taken place somewhat unconsciously, it’s interesting to look at one now that’s distinctly more deliberate. Here what I have in mind is Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret. The story starts off with an attractive young governess named Lucy Graham marrying Sir Michael Audley. But Lucy Graham, as it turns out, was married before to George Talboys (as Helen Talboys). For years they struggled with poverty, until Talboys finally leaves for Australia, hoping to find gold there. When GT at last returns from Australia (having struck it rich there), he learns of Helen Talboys being dead. Talboys and his friend Robert Audley (nephew of Sir Michael, barrister) visit Sir Michael, but Lady Audley avoids meeting George, who mysteriously disappears on the estate. Robert Audley (being a barrister) begins to put the pieces together, and discovers that Lady Audley = Helen Talboys. Feeling the heat of suspicion, Lady Audley sets fire to the inn where Robert Audley is staying, trying to kill him—but he survives. When he’s finally able to confront her, Lady Audley claims insanity (later verified by Dr. Mosgrave), and that desertion was necessary for herself + child (Georgey, son of GT). So she gets off: RA has Lady Audley institutionalized in Belgium as Madame Taylor. Later, when he visits her there, Lady Audley confesses to RA that she killed GT by pushing him down a deserted well. But in fact GT survives (according to testimony from Luke Marks, a caretaker), and after going to New York, returns and is reunited with RA.

So here we have someone (Lady Audley) supposedly normal who’s quite willing to commit any number of heinous crimes with no qualms at all. And unlike Magdalen Vanstone in No Name, she’s hardly even made to suffer. Of course, her claim of insanity is just a ploy (anyone who’s that good at pretending can fake anything). Not surprisingly, Lady Audley’s Secret was a runaway bestseller in Victorian England. You can just imagine all the readers, scandalized but titillated, wondering: how can she not feel anything? Significantly, Lady Audley doesn’t even feel it for her own child, whom she abandons to very indifferent care (ultimate Victorian evidence of unredeemability) so she can look single and available for Sir Michael Audley. Nor do I find it at all surprising that Braddon doesn’t give us any kind of psychological analysis of Lady Audley, any attempt at even a glimpse of interiority. In fact, it’s exactly what we should expect. The whole point of Lady Audley isn’t the psychological analysis of a criminal à la Crime and Punishment but rather a kind of moral in-your-face dare. Lady Audley looks normal, talks normally, and—in her everyday doings—acts normally. In other words, we can’t rule her out right away as mentally unsound, or unable to assess things properly. Braddon’s question to the reader, then, might be something like this: if Lady Audley looks so normal, who are we to say she isn’t normal? And if she is normal, who are we to judge her as morally culpable when she’s trying to do away with her husband George Talboys or, later, his friend Robert Audley? Obviously she doesn’t see anything wrong with what she’s doing (notice she never shows any sign of repenting, and even tries to justify many of the things she’s done, like deserting her husband). So if we say she’s “normal” we then have to claim some kind of superior vantage point in order to judge her attempts to do away with people as morally culpable. And that’s awkward because we can’t claim to be inside her head—thanks to Braddon, we’re distinctly lacking in the proper feel of interiority. In earlier Victorian literature, typically, one of two things would happen: (1) criminal confesses, repents error of his/her ways, or (2) criminal by other acts shows himself/herself to be pathological. Which is to say: error in moral judgment, or psychological weakness. This, then, is a new departure, given that Braddon doesn’t offer either. And the result is that we now have to think about whether criminal activity is really different from normalcy, or whether it’s in some sense just an extension of normalcy. In other words, after watching people cross over from normalcy to crime unwittingly, we eventually have to ask whether it’s all that different if they do it willingly. Or we could just take moral refuge in the fact that all these instances are fiction.

I want to end, however, with an example of moral crossover that’s actually true, the sad history of Oscar Wilde’s late days. In his De Profundis letter Wilde describes, first, his shocking discovery that he himself is that criminal other he always thought of as so terribly different from himself, and, second, his attempt to deal with this discovery:

I will begin by telling you that I blame myself terribly. As I sit here in this dark cell in convict clothes, a disgraced and ruined man, I blame myself. In the perturbed and fitful nights of anguish, in the long monotonous days of pain, it is myself I blame.
(p. 38)

When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would be always haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else… would all be tainted for me… To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development.
(pp. 99-100)

Initially, when he first finds himself in jail, Wilde probably can’t believe it. So he has to look around at his dark prison cell, see himself in his prison clothes, to get himself to believe he’s now what he appears to be—“a disgraced and ruined man.” Because if he believes he’s that, he then has to admit he’s become the criminal other he always thought of as just not having the same kind of moral awareness as himself. Once he’s taken all this in fully, however, he then has to figure out what to do about it. It’s here that Wilde comes to what he seems to consider a genuine insight. At first, he says, people told him to forget who he was. Presumably their thinking was that if he saw the contrast between what he was before (in his glory days) and what he is now, he’d find it too painful. But he rejects that advice. Instead, he says, it’s only “by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind.” In other words, he has to be able to accept what he’s become. Here he talks about “realising what I am”: what he means by “realising,” I think, is something like making it real to himself. Externally, objectively, he’s a prison inmate, a convict. And maybe at first he tries to resist that. But it’s always there. So it’s only when he finally accepts it, internalizes it, that he can feel he’s really come to grips with his circumstances, his condition. But there’s more. Now when he’s about to be released some people are telling him: forget you ever were here. But that too, he says, would be a mistake. Because if he forgot he’d then be “haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace” since on some level he’d know he’d merely forgotten. So the only way to deal with it is to consider all these things that have happened to him as “experiences” in his own development. In other words, they’re all part of time, events whose sequence makes up private memory, which is inseparably linked to his sense of himself. Thinking about these aspects of his past life as “experiences” helps to float them. As a result, there’s no longer any absolute condition of normalcy or crime. Nor is it even a matter of crossing over from one to the other. Instead, he can think of both normalcy and crime with the conditions that accompany these as just “experiences” that have helped to form his own consciousness. So at the end of the Victorian era we find a gradual shift away from even moral relativism, to something like an even more encompassing sense of what we might call extreme subjectivity.

Melville, Le Cercle Rouge: The scene described occurs at 93:46-95:01. Link opens a short trailer in youTube in a new tab.

Dassin, Rififi: The scene described occurs at 20:32-21:42. Link opens a short trailer in youTube in a new tab.