Sunday, December 02, 2007

Paris-crime IVème: François-Marie Arouet, detective

Who's that Arouet guy? He's better known by the name he took for himself — Voltaire — and he made a pretty good detective at least once in his celebrated career.

Jean Calas was a draper in Toulose in 1761, a Calvinist at a time when it was not always healthy to be one in France. In October of that year, his son Marc-Antoine was found dead. A hue (and also a cry) went up among the population that Calas had murdered his son to prevent him from converting to Catholicism. Calas' family was dispossessed, and he was taken into custody, eventually to be tortured publicly and executed.

The affair became a rallying cry for religious toleration, the inspiration for Voltaire's famous treatise on the subject. Here are some excerpts from an introduction to the edition of that treatise, Traité sur la tolerance, that I bought when I was thinking elevated thoughts at the Panthéon this week:

"Did (Marc-Antoine), when he came down to the ground floor, commit suicide by hanging in the store? The answer depends on the position of the body when it was discovered. On this chief point, the Calases disagreed, which aggravated the presumption of their guilt. The evening of the 13th, Pierre, pressed by his father, affirmed that the body was stretched out on the floor, the first version and no doubt the truth. Such a position does not exclude the thesis of suicide by hanging, but it accords better with murder by strangulation. Also, the Calases changed their story the next day. ... an acrobatic suicide, but these exist.

"The investigator, David de Beaudrigue, was no Maigret, much less a Sherlock Holmes; He failed to follow tracks that might have led to the truth. In the afternoon, Marc-Antoine had exchanged some silver for [gold] louis d'or for his father's account. These louis d'or were never found. What became of them? Beaudrigue never asked that question. Did Marc-Antoine lose them, gambling or some other way, which would explain his suicide? Did an assassin wait for him in the rear of the house, watching for him to rob him, or for some other reason? (The investigation did not interest itself in this 28-year-old man's relations with women."
With the scene thus set, allies of the Calas family called in Voltaire, who took the case and solved it in three months, eventually winning a posthumous exoneration for Calas and a royal pension for his family. What most impressed this crime-fiction reader, though, was the introduction's readiness to cast the story in detective-story terms, and this from an academic.

And now, readers, can you name other historical figures who have turned detective?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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8 Comments:

Anonymous LauraR said...

Conan Doyle - involved in obtaining justice for 2 falsely convicted men, George Edalji and Oscar Slater.


http://www.westminsteronline.org/conandoyle/TrueCrime.html for more info.

December 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

You applied your little gray cells to that one with astonishing prompness. A historical figure who was also a detective-story writer turning detective. The plot thickens. Thanks!

December 02, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Emile Zola publicized the errors in the Dreyfus Affair; I'm not sure whether "J'Accuse" should be considered investigatory in nature or sheer polemic, but whatever it was it eventually worked to get Dreyfux exonerated.

December 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

And it helped earn Zola the honor of having a street and its accompanying Metro station named for him. But I should follow up that interesting question of whether J'Accuse is investigatory as well as polemical. Voltaire, for example, was the king of polemicists, but the introduction that I cited makes clear that he was an investigator, too. Zola, as a journalist, may have done some investigating as well.

I've also said I thought Montaigne might make a good crime-fiction detective because of his penchant for examining a question from every possible angle. I see him as an endearing but infuriatingly thorough detective. I would not say the same for all French intellectual heroes, however. I think Rousseau would have been too self-absorbed to take a detective's interest in a case that did not involve himself.

December 03, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"Rousseau would have been too self-absorbed"

Heh. I wish I knew the word for murder in latin; it would be fun to make a play on Cogito, ergo sum with killing as the first declarative.

December 04, 2007  
Anonymous Amazone said...

thank you Peter for your comment. I understand you are spending a little time in Paris. I hope you didn't have to suffer about our strikes.

I just finished my first Izzo's book : total kheops. Great.

December 04, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister: I'll stay away from speculating about Descartes as a detective since my knowledge of his work does not extend much beyond the old Monty Python couplet "René Descartes was a drunken fart / I drink, therefore I am." (A Descartes Web site, in fact, informs me that Descartes avoided alcoholic overindulgence.)

"I kill, therefore I am" has a place in any good detective story, though.

December 04, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I am back home from Paris, unfortunately, though my luggage is not. And the strikes caused me no problems, as they had been suspended two days before I arrived. But many people in Paris were nontheless using the Vélibre bicycles, which is good, strikes or no strikes.

Izzo's writing is intense and romantic, isn't it? I've read Total Kheops in translation (it's called Total Chaos in English), and I bought a secondhand French copy during my trip. I will let you know if I make my way through it!

December 04, 2007  

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