From Tales of Hoffmann: Mademoiselle de Scudéri translated by Sally Hayward

Published in 1819, Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéri predates Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin by 22 years, and some argue that conventional wisdom i.e that the Murders in the Rue Morgue is the first detective story, should be revised. While I agree that Mademoiselle de Scudéri can be classified as a crime novel(la), I’m not so convinced by the detective label. Let’s take a closer look.

But first a short synopsis of the plot as relevant to the argument. I’m skipping lots – romantic subplots, coincidental relationships, gothic/horror tropes, melodrama aplenty. I might come back to this another day, because there is so much to say about Mademoiselle de Scudéri.

1680 and Paris is experiencing a reign of terror. La Regnie, the head of the Chambre Ardente, a tribunal established by the king, to help combat a neverending spate of poisonings, turns out to be a bloodthirsty as the villains. If someone doesn’t poison you, La Regnie will find other ways to kill you! Guilty or otherwise. Then another serial killer starts prowling the streets. The victims this time are all men on their way to clandestine meetings with their lovers. They bear gifts: jewellery crafted by the finest jeweller in France. They are attacked with one stab to the heart and divested of the expensive trinkets in their possession. This obviously becomes the talk of the court, and a petition in the form of a poem is written to petition the King to increase La Regnie’s powers, for the wealthy are fearful for their lives. When Mademoiselle de Scudéri is asked for her opinion of the poem, she skewers their concerns (and their cowardice) with the following response:

Un amant qui craint les voleurs / n’est point digne d’amour

(A lover who fears thieves / is not worthy of love)

Well, shortly thereafter she finds herself the recipient of the most exquisite necklace imaginable, presumably sent from the bandits, known as Les Invisibles, who are grateful for the preservation of their business model! Of course, the scruples of Mademoiselle de Scudéri, a genteel, moral, aged spinster, do not allow her to wear it. The plot thickens, however, when she receives a message advising her to return the necklace to the jeweller, if she values her life. And with that Mademoiselle de Scudéri finds herself embroiled in a murder case, for when she arrives at a Cardillac’s workshop, she finds he has been murdered … with one stab to the heart. His apprentice, Oliver,who has hidden the murder weapon, is about to be carted off by La Regnie to his doom.

Of course this is an obvious red herring, but the tribunal has no interest in looking any further. Mademoiselle de Scudéri to the rescue then? Well, yes, but she only interviews Oliver and believes his story, which for reasons, I’m choosing to ignore in this post, he refuses to tell the authorities. All comes right in the end following the fortuitous testimony of an eyewitness, although Oliver, while not guilty, is very far from innocent. Some sophisticated shades of grey there, Hoffmann. Bravo! But I digress. Neither the authorities nor Scudéri analyse the clues or attempt to put together the pieces of a jigsaw either. (Not that there are many pieces. There is a pretty obvious common denominator in all these cases.) There is no actual detecting that I can see.

There are, however, many other elements of crime fiction. Historical crime, for starters. The Paris poisonings and the Chambre Ardente were real. Mademoiselle de Scudéri was a real person. I think I read that the jewellery murders actually happened and remained unsolved. (Note to self: Improve your note taking!) If I did read that, then Hoffmann is filling in the gaps and we’re in classic historical crime fiction territory. If I didn’t, and Hoffmann invented it all, then this is pure fiction in a well-realised late C17th setting. Either way, it’s deliciously sinister and very historical.

Now let’s view Mademoiselle de Scudéri through the lens of psychological crime.

***** Spoiler Alert *****

It generally accepted that Cardillac, the jeweller, is driven by his mania for diamonds and because he cannot bear to be separated from his creations. But what is the root cause of this compulsion? Cardillac explains it by means of an incident that took place when his mother was expecting him. His mother’s desire for diamonds becoming a compulsion in her unborn child. An “evil star”, as he calls it. This is patently fatalistic nonsense, an attempt to exonerate himself from blame. These murders have a pattern for Cardillac is busy mirroring the incident involving his mother, trying to recreate it. That involves manipulation and logistical planning. There’s nothing predestined about it. (Although I do now find myself wondering about criminal insanity …)

***** End spoiler *****

These are cold-blooded murders committed by a killer with a perverse mother complex. The question to be answered is what caused this? Hoffmann doesn’t answer that question satisfactorily, whereas Freud no doubt would have a lot to say, and a contemporary psychological crime writer even more! Clearly Hoffmann is laying the groundwork for psychological crime fiction, creating a prototype Jekyll/Hyde character in the process.

Gilbert Adair in his introduction to Hoffmann’s tale in the Hesperus Press edition claims that Mademoiselle de Scudëri is the literary antecedent of Miss Marple. I’m still not convinced, but cannot be adamant about it as I’ve never read any Miss Marple stories. Nor am I planning too, though I expect curiosity may well get the better of me one day ….

But before I go there, there’s the artist-cum-murderer trail in German Literature to be followed. From Hoffmann’s villain to Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger to a long wished-for reread of Patrick Süsskind’s Perfume. Good grief, Hoffmann, down which dark alleyways are you leading me?