|Émile Gaboriau (1832 - 1873), french novelist, one of the first crime fiction writers
The Lerouge Case is an 1866 detective novel by Émile Gaboriau, the first detective novel he wrote. I'm surprised some of these old detectives have fallen into obscurity while others -I'm looking at you, Sherlock Holmes- continue to capture the public imagination. This is a fine tale, with interesting characters and a plot that will hold your attention. According to Wikipedia, it
introduced an amateur detective. It also introduced a young police officer named Monsieur Lecoq, who was the hero in three of Gaboriau's later detective novels. The character of Lecoq was based on a real-life thief turned police officer, Eugène François Vidocq (1775–1857), whose own memoirs, Les Vrais Mémoires de Vidocq, mixed fiction and fact...You can read it online here. It begins,
On Thursday, the 6th of March, 1862, two days after Shrove Tuesday, five women belonging to the village of La Jonchere presented themselves at the police station at Bougival.
They stated that for two days past no one had seen the Widow Lerouge, one of their neighbours, who lived by herself in an isolated cottage. They had several times knocked at the door, but all in vain. The window-shutters as well as the door were closed; and it was impossible to obtain even a glimpse of the interior.
This silence, this sudden disappearance alarmed them. Apprehensive of a crime, or at least of an accident, they requested the interference of the police to satisfy their doubts by forcing the door and entering the house.
Bougival is a pleasant riverside village, peopled on Sundays by crowds of boating parties. Trifling offences are frequently heard of in its neighbourhood, but crimes are rare.
The commissary of police at first refused to listen to the women, but their importunities so fatigued him that he at length acceded to their request. He sent for the corporal of gendarmes, with two of his men, called into requisition the services of a locksmith, and, thus accompanied, followed the neighbours of the Widow Lerouge.
La Jonchere owes some celebrity to the inventor of the sliding railway, who for some years past has, with more enterprise than profit, made public trials of his system in the immediate neighbourhood. It is a hamlet of no importance, resting upon the slope of the hill which overlooks the Seine between La Malmaison and Bougival. It is about twenty minutes’ walk from the main road, which, passing by Rueil and Port-Marly, goes from Paris to St. Germain, and is reached by a steep and rugged lane, quite unknown to the government engineers.
The party, led by the gendarmes, followed the main road which here bordered the river until it reached this lane, into which it turned, and stumbled over the rugged inequalities of the ground for about a hundred yards, when it arrived in front of a cottage of extremely modest yet respectable appearance. This cottage had probably been built by some little Parisian shopkeeper in love with the beauties of nature; for all the trees had been carefully cut down. It consisted merely of two apartments on the ground floor with a loft above. Around it extended a much-neglected garden, badly protected against midnight prowlers, by a very dilapidated stone wall about three feet high, and broken and crumbling in many places. A light wooden gate, clumsily held in its place by pieces of wire, gave access to the garden.
“It is here,” said the women.
The commissary stopped. During his short walk, the number of his followers had been rapidly increasing, and now included all the inquisitive and idle persons of the neighbourhood. He found himself surrounded by about forty individuals burning with curiosity.
“No one must enter the garden,” said he; and, to ensure obedience, he placed the two gendarmes on sentry before the entrance, and advanced towards the house, accompanied by the corporal and the locksmith.
He knocked several times loudly with his leaded cane, first at the door, and then successively at all the window shutters. After each blow, he placed his ear against the wood and listened. Hearing nothing, he turned to the locksmith.
“Open!” said he.
The workman unstrapped his satchel, and produced his implements. He had already introduced a skeleton key into the lock, when a loud exclamation was heard from the crowd outside the gate.
“The key!” they cried. “Here is the key!”
A boy about twelve years old playing with one of his companions, had seen an enormous key in a ditch by the roadside; he had picked it up and carried it to the cottage in triumph.
“Give it to me youngster,” said the corporal. “We shall see.”
The key was tried, and it proved to be the key of the house.
The commissary and the locksmith exchanged glances full of sinister misgivings. “This looks bad,” muttered the corporal. They entered the house, while the crowd, restrained with difficulty by the gendarmes, stamped with impatience, or leant over the garden wall, stretching their necks eagerly, to see or hear something of what was passing within the cottage.
Those who anticipated the discovery of a crime, were unhappily not deceived. The commissary was convinced of this as soon as he crossed the threshold. Everything in the first room pointed with a sad eloquence to the recent presence of a malefactor. The furniture was knocked about, and a chest of drawers and two large trunks had been forced and broken open.
In the inner room, which served as a sleeping apartment, the disorder was even greater. It seemed as though some furious hand had taken a fiendish pleasure in upsetting everything. Near the fireplace, her face buried in the ashes, lay the dead body of Widow Lerouge. All one side of the face and the hair were burnt; it seemed a miracle that the fire had not caught her clothing.
“Wretches!” exclaimed the corporal. “Could they not have robbed, without assassinating the poor woman?”
“But where has she been wounded?” inquired the commissary, “I do not see any blood.”
“Look! here between the shoulders,” replied the corporal; “two fierce blows, by my faith. I’ll wager my stripes she had no time to cry out.”
He stooped over the corpse and touched it.
“She is quite cold,” he continued, “and it seems to me that she is no longer very stiff. It is at least thirty-six hours since she received her death-blow.”
The commissary began writing, on the corner of a table, a short official report.
“We are not here to talk, but to discover the guilty,” said he to the corporal. “Let information be at once conveyed to the justice of the peace, and the mayor, and send this letter without delay to the Palais de Justice. In a couple of hours, an investigating magistrate can be here. In the meanwhile, I will proceed to make a preliminary inquiry.”
“Shall I carry the letter?” asked the corporal of gendarmes.
“No, send one of your men; you will be useful to me here in keeping these people in order, and in finding any witnesses I may want. We must leave everything here as it is. I will install myself in the other room.”
A gendarme departed at a run towards the station at Rueil; and the commissary commenced his investigations in regular form, as prescribed by law.
“Who was Widow Lerouge? Where did she come from? What did she do? Upon what means, and how did she live? What were her habits, her morals, and what sort of company did she keep? Was she known to have enemies? Was she a miser? Did she pass for being rich?”
The commissary knew the importance of ascertaining all this: but although the witnesses were numerous enough, they possessed but little information. The depositions of the neighbours, successively interrogated, were empty, incoherent, and incomplete. No one knew anything of the victim, who was a stranger in the country. Many presented themselves as witnesses moreover, who came forward less to afford information than to gratify their curiosity. A gardener’s wife, who had been friendly with the deceased, and a milk-woman with whom she dealt, were alone able to give a few insignificant though precise details.
In a word, after three hours of laborious investigation, after having undergone the infliction of all the gossip of the country, after receiving evidence the most contradictory, and listened to commentaries the most ridiculous, the following is what appeared the most reliable to the commissary.