The name of Émile Gaboriau has been on my list of authors I’d like to investigate for quite some time, and when I found a stand-alone book that filled a difficult year in my 100 Years of Books project I knew that his time had come.
The drama kicks off in the very first chapter.
A bank manager is running down quiet street in Paris. He bursts into his head cashier’s home, interrupting a dinner party, and tells his cashier, that all is discovered, that the police are close behind him, and that he must flee.
The police are close behind, seeking to arrest the cashier for the theft of twelve million francs, but he has eluded them. He has slipped out the back window, climbing down a rope made of bed-sheets that his quick thinking-son tied together for him.
The man’s family – his wife, that son and his daughter – didn’t know what to think. They had been ruled over by an autocratic man, they lived quite parsimoniously, and they definitely hadn’t seen any sign of the missing money.
And so the author threw questions into the air:
- Was the man a criminal mastermind?
- Was he a player in another man’s conspiracy?
- Or was he a pawn – an innocent man who had been framed?
Before he addresses these questions, he looks into the past; exploring the lives of his wife, their son, his mistress, their daughter, and her secret admirer.
I had a lovely time reading those five stories. They gave me a wonderful understanding of the different players and I think that was because M. Gaboriau was a very fine storyteller who had a wealth of ideas to put into this book, and because he knew his characters very well and cared about them.
There were times when that made me think of Trollope, but the flavour of this book is unmistakably Gallic, and there were times when it felt a little theatrical. There were many times when a scene was sent and then characters would declaim, and one or two of them had very long stories to tell.
It was a wonderful entertainment, and though some parts of it felt rather fanciful it worked because the heart of the story rang true.
At the heart of the story were three people whose lives were turned upside-down, and who were left with next to nothing. Friends and neighbours looked at them askance, many of them believing that they knew more than they said and that they had – or would – share in the proceeds of the crime.
The police are certain that all they have to do is find the missing man; and so his son and his daughter’s admirer, who have ideas of their own, set out to find out – and to prove – exactly what happened at the bank.
There is drama and romance, intrigue and suspense, as the story moves apace through grand houses, poor backstreets and criminal dives. In the early part of the book I thought of Trollope, but in this part of the book I saw the influence of Dumas.
Things got rather silly at times, especially the romances; and the book is dated but it is still very readable.
M. Gaboriau brought 19th century Paris to life, he spun a very fine yarn, and he made me care about his characters. I worked out how the story would play out some time before it did, but I didn’t mind too much because I was being very well entertained, and because I got the ending that I wanted.