Most everyone has a favorite detective from well-known novels like Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot but these are fictitious detectives. Have you ever wondered what life might have been like for real-life detectives?
Eugene Francois Vidocq actually started out on the wrong side of the tracks and started out on a life of crime. If he had continued he and his intelligent mind might have wound up in a noose. Shortly before he turned 34 this French criminal chose to offer his services as an informant to the police after he had once again been arrested. Soon due to his skill and reputation he became a spy and after two years when he was released he started doing undercover work.
In 1812 Vidocq worked hard at getting a plainclothes unit and was successful. It was a year later that Napoleon turned this into a national police force known as La Surete Nationale. It was lead by Vidocq. As time went on this detective opened other branches all over France and kept on expanding his underworld network of informants. He was able to come up with innovative ideas on how to take early ballistics and plaster casts for shoe prints.
Knowing that every detective needs some ingenious ideas he started befriending well-known writers of the time like Balzac and Victor Hugo. He hired a ghostwriter to write his memoirs. Becoming very popular other policemen shunned Vidocq and many of them thought that he was still of the criminal element. Their jealousy went as far as thinking that the detective took bribes from other interlopers and found a way to “solve” his own crimes. Vidocq rose above all this and in 1823 he opened the Office of Information which is looked upon to be the world’s first known private detective agency.
Sherlock Holmes was very much based on Vidocq as were Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables”. Vidocq is mentioned in “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens and is cited in “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville. Edgar Allan Poe refers to his methods in “Murders in the Rue Morgue”. His book of memoirs of this detective work can be bought online “The Memoirs of Detective Vidocq: Convict, Spy, and Principal Agent of the French Police”. The book became a bestseller and sold more than 50,000 copies in the first year.