Saturday, 11 April 2015

Review: Fantômas, by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre

[This review contains slight spoilers, both explicitly and by implication.]

"‘You are mad, boy, absolutely mad! Vidocq – Rocambole! You mix up legend and history, lump together murderers with detectives, and make no distinction between right and wrong! You would not hesitate to put the heroes of crime and the heroes of law and order on one and the same pedestal!’

‘You have said the word, sir,’ Charles Rambert exclaimed; ‘they are all heroes. But, better still Fantômas–’"

Fantômas, 1911

A flame-lit discussion on that force of criminality, Fantômas, foreshadows the lady of the house’s slaughter. A missing English lord appears dead in a trunk. A foreign Princess, too scared to screamed, bathes as a burglar cuts her alarm. Only Juve, an Inspector of supreme deductive creativity, can grasp at the tenuous, yet iron, thread between the crimes. But is even his genius enough?
Allain and Souvestre know how to keep the shark for the end. So well, in fact, they lure the reader to consider what so many characters believe: Fantômas is a legend, a fiction explaining all devilries; and Juve’s investigation is but a search for a chaos's lynchpin. But the novel is 'Fantômas', and Allain and Souvestre are not Du Maurier, so the title must justify itself.

Like Jaws, Fantômas waits for the finale. Unlike Jaws, he does not permeate the novel as a visceral threat. Rather, he mists through the byzantine plot. Not the Minotaur, but the labyrinth.

The writers accomplish the rare achievement of truly puzzling the reader. Yes, most good mystery novels veil the murderer and his manner, but few succeed in making the reader incredulous. That the Great Thief stole the diamond, and the death was no suicide, surprises only the cast. But here, the reader feels Juve’s frustration, knowing the crimes are connected for the sole reason that they must be. Like a stubborn mathematical problem, Fantômas is the known answer Juve must tease from the question.

Mystery writers, of the old school at least, rely on the moment when the detective’s theories snap together - a flash illuminating the world. Here writers either prove themselves clever, or a waste of time. Setting plot lines off on their own way is all very well, but what fascinates the reader is the expectation that they shall all meet at the end. Allain and Souvestre manage not only to bring the disparate threads to a point, but also to resonate their climax back through the plot. The reveal at the end reveals an undercurrent to the entire novel. While not a perfectly coherent plot, one feels cohesion is hardly the point. Convolution and chaos evoke Fantômas far better than a neat denouement. And if the threat of narrative confusion intimidates you, worry not, you'll hardly notice. The writers, though maintaining a literary bent, wrote for money. They designed Fantômas for audience exhilaration, engineering a plot that steams from climax to climax.

All of it presented in a unique flavour of the post-Victorian aesthetic. One cannot call it gritty – even at its grisliest it hums with a turn-of-the-century theatrical gaiety. It never winks, nor froths over to self-parody, but it grins the skull’s grin - it knows the macabre appetites it feeds. Even ‘respectable’ readers will echo Charles in the novel’s opening, imploring these gents and ladies to drop their moralising and sing the deeds of this vulgar King of crime.

And sing the writers do, yet still manage to leave the legend a legend, pulling the veil from the villain’s plans, but never from the villain. Remove his mask, you shall not reveal his identity. Despite three-hundred pages skirting round his edges, the reader never penetrates Fantômas. Even at the reveal, the reader cannot but wonder, 'Is it another act?'

Unlike Lupin or Raffles, Fantômas is not a dashing rogue charming the reader one-on-one. He is a dramatic force, seen only through a haze. Partly, the writers accomplish this by refraining from inhabiting Fantômas' perspective, depicting him through Juve and secondary characters.

A classic of crime whose aesthetic has not diminished. Many a criminal anti-hero has had their depravity dulled by the exponential strengthening of the public's stomach. But Fantômas exudes a subtle menace that will tantalize every reader’s taste for the macabre. Allain and Souvestre created a work of dream-like uncertainty.   


  1. I have not read the novel but first of all, this is a translated text, as the origin is from France. Fantômas was published in French originally in 1911 when Britain is within Edwardian Era. It was published a year after another famous monster/mystery with a mask, The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, 1910, notice the similarity of the name…).
    Such monster illustrates the influence of romanticism and symbolism movements. Symbolism is related to the gothic component of Romanticism, and when the work of Edgar Allan Poe (who is considered as a central figure of Romanticism in US, and is considered generally the inventor of the detective fiction) is adored by Charles Baudelaire (the precursor of symbolism, who wrote Les Fleurs du mal), and the translation of Edgar’s work into French is a major influence upon French literature. Therefore, this movement and the general method is to push human into the position of monster rather than creating real monster.
    Furthermore, Victorian period is always giving the impression of moral conservative, but “Penny Dreadful” emerges as a cheap popular serial literature production during the nineteenth century, it is said, according to Wikipedia, about stories “typically sensational, focusing on the exploits of detectives, criminals, or supernatural entities” (which gives us Sweeney Todd).
    Therefore, Victorian Era Britain is giving the people a moral impression (or historian is trying to build such impression based on British rising position through colonisation or imperialism), but a full picture will tell you otherwise. What is actually fascinating is that the Fantômas was translated into English possibly in 1915, during the First World War, I wonder how British public would response to this human monster, who might pop up from anywhere and disguise into an ordinary people and kill you… But either way, if the writer (or writers in this case) would to put such monster in an iconic position for their serials (for money…), they would not be able to unmask Fantômas, and as they were trying to create a monster, it would be of difficulty to write from a real monster (not the monster from Frankenstein, who is more human than lots of others…), and I think they do not really explore the issue of copycat, who follows a similar method of serial killer to commit a crime, which would give Juve (Sherlock Holmes was created in 1887) a much bigger problem to deal with.
    How about Jack the Ripper (1888) who never becomes a human being in our cultural consciousness, and hides always in the darkness?

    1. Propriety and prudishness provide fertilised ground for perversity.

      Though I have only read the first two novels (and watched the first five silent films), I assume they keep Fantomas unknown by focussing on Juve's perspective. In the films, at least, there is a story where Fantomas is the focal character. Inevitably, he is brought from monster down to human (though not humanised).