“What did you say?”
“I said: Fantômas.”
“And what does that mean?”
“But what is it?”
“Nobody.…And yet, yes, it is somebody!”
“And what does the somebody do?”
(Souvestre and Allain, Fantômas, 1)
I’ve had a fascination with the French villain Fantômas ever since I stumbled upon the André Hunebelle films in college. A master of disguise, Fantômas perpetrates elaborate thefts and murders throughout France, all the while eluding the dogged pursuit of bumbling Inspector Juve. I had no idea at the time that these slightly comic murder mysteries were, in fact, based on a gritty, crime book series by French journalists, Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Since then, my affection for the series has only grown.
The introduction to the first novel in the series, Fantômas, was one of the most fascinating parts of the book for me. In it I learned that these novels were among the first to take serial fiction being printed in newspapers and magazines and adopt a long-form story format, producing a new novel-length book each month that were to be sold cheaply to the public. The books were an instant success with artists, scholars, and common people alike. In total, Souvestre and Allain wrote a prodigious 32 books between the years 1911 and 1913, in which Fantômas spreads unmitigated terror over Paris and the surrounding countryside.
Fantômas begins with a dinner party gone awry after the body of the Marquise de Langrune is discovered brutally slain in her room. Shortly afterward, a daring robbery is committed at the Royal Palace Hotel upon no other than Princess Sonia Danidoff, who is caught off guard while soaking in her royal bath. Then, the older, unsolved disappearance of Lord Beltham, which was the very topic of conversation at the Langrune party, rears its head once more in a rather unpleasant manner. Only the intuitive Inspector Juve, who seems more a forerunner to Poirot than the fool of Hunebelle’s films, suspects the disparate crimes may be linked. Their common thread? Fantômas.
Many costumes and identities are donned and shed throughout the book as the stories interweave and characters are revealed to play multiple roles in the narrative. There are mysterious comings and goings, terrible storms, sneaking about on trains, an illicit love affair, a madwoman, brawls, and even more deaths, all of which lead to Fantômas and ultimately the guillotine.
Frankly, I loved plunging into a seedy world of Parisian crime and melodramatic language. I mean, just look at some of the chapter titles: “The Genius of Crime,” “A Dreadful Confession,” “A Tragic Dawn,” “Fell Treachery.” There is something about it that is akin to a guilty pleasure, though I feel no guilt. Perhaps it is indulging that penchant for the macabre that human beings possess. I’ve always loved a good mystery and these are great if you like the action-packed variety. Little time is spent with the minute details of plot and circumstance–just enough to forge a connection. Because it was clear that Souvestre and Allain were not out to write cerebral thrillers but engaging stories about characters within their own mythos, I was not bothered that there was the occasional “easy out” or that a few lines of logic or evidence could be picked apart with little effort. The authors were essentially creating a new genre of literature and peopling it with strong enough individuals to give it life: Inspector Juve, Jérôme Fandor, and Fantômas himself. I think they did a marvelous job and I wouldn’t be surprised if further exploits of Fantômas appear on my blog in the future. It may take some searching to get your hands on a copy but you’ll be glad you did. I’ll leave you now with further enticement by Inspector Juve:
“This is the last thing I have to say:
“The man…who has had the genius to devise and to accomplish such terrible crimes in incredible circumstances, and to combine audacity with skill, and a conception of evil with a pretence of respectability; who has been able to play the Proteus eluding all the efforts of the police…He is, and can be no other than Fantômas!” (Fantômas, 259-60)