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The central plot-line… is that of a mystery-of-kinship story whose basic literary shape derives from the mystery-romances of Gothic and melodrama… As such, Les Mysteres de Paris is of exceedingly limited interest.

This is Eugène Sue’s serialised crime novel The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3) in the estimation of Professor Christopher Prendergast, the author of For the People, By the People? (2003), one of the few studies of Sue’s fiction in English. Prendergast’s concern is not with literary merit and he is instead conducting a sociological investigation into how reader feedback might have helped to shape Sue’s story. Whenever literary critics have found The Mysteries on their hands – from Edgar Allan Poe in 1846 to Umberto Eco in 1979 – they have tended to value it as being slipshod and downmarket. Prendergast could well speak for one and all when judging The Mysteries to be “of exceedingly limited interest.”

You do not have to hunt for very long in a library before you have found a book that is more competently written than The Mysteries. But it was an unprecedented bestseller in its day and as vast a cultural phenomenon as, say, the HBO series Game of Thrones is in our own. Pierre Orecchioni has calculated that The Mysteries could have reached as many as 800,000 people between 1842 and 1844. As with GoT, even the story’s minor characters were celebrities, with, for example, the porter Monsieur Pipelet and his wife being rendered in statue form as angels in the 1844 Paris Industrial Exposition.

For a little while, therefore, Sue’s writing had dazzled an entire society. And its performance as fiction must have contributed in some way to this success. So far from exciting “exceedingly limited interest,” might not Sue’s literary knowhow be worthy of further contemplation? Or even a little quizzical poking?

The Mysteries has a strange quality of being simultaneously foreign and familiar. We will be conscious that novels no longer evince the behaviour patterns that this one does; we are also likely to have a surprisingly vivid grasp of its format from contemporary culture. Any consumer of daytime soap operas will know their way around this landscape, with its mix of simplistic heroines and villains, and its constant mindfulness about the next cliff-hanger.

The reader of The Mysteries might often feel that they are following a vast, half-intelligible continental war, in which they have to chart the ongoing campaigns with pins on a map. When the poor Slasher is sent to Algeria, and then left there for hundreds of pages until he is needed again, we will gain the impression of a piece on a chessboard that has sat idle for too long. By the time that we reach Book V, there are ongoing plots against six separate victims – seven, if we count the artist Cabrion’s harassment of Monsieur Pipelet (which comes to us second-hand).

Moreover, whenever new characters are minted we will increasingly find that they are the most cursory duplications of ones that are already in circulation. For instance, Old Lady Martial is essentially the same character as the Owl whilst Edwards is in no way different from Murph. The Skeleton, yet another new character, is interchangeable with the expended Schoolmaster. Indeed, one would struggle to tell apart the Skeleton and the Schoolmaster in an identity parade. The German novelist Friedrich Gerstäcker critiques Sue’s Juif Errant synonymously with The Mysteries when protesting about “the unmanageable abundance of characters who do nothing but appear and disappear.” The traverser of The Mysteries soon learns to see and skip the points where Sue gets in an extra hundred or so paid words by simply forcing his characters to recount what has already happened.

Popular fiction would eventually hand back storytelling on this scale and opt for altogether slimmer models. The format of The Mysteries, along with its spate of international epigones, looks, in retrospect, like an experiment that was universally decided to have had unsatisfactory results. Charles Dickens did not run with Sue’s escalating plotting and multiplication of ever flimsier characters. But then Dickens wrote with greater care, thoroughness, and realism. (Mind you, Sue’s miser Jacques Ferrand is feasibly a model for Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge. A Christmas Carol had appeared two months after The Mysteries were completed. The clerks’ chatter outside Ferrand’s office is distinctly Bob Cratchity.)

The horror and suspense of Sue’s story will be more to the liking of today’s readers. The virtuoso Gothicism of the Schoolmaster’s nightmare, with its description of a woman who is drowning and emitting something like “that singular noise which a bottle thrust into the water makes when filling itself,” is pretty nimble for the period. The sentimentalism, on the other hand, malfunctions as all writing of this kind had done once Oscar Wilde had wielded his world-destroying stiletto: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” We might gravitate to the horror and cling onto it because it possesses a realism that is absent in the tear-jerking.

Even so, an interesting fluidity opens up in the novel where realism meets villainy. There is a realism of sorts to how the evil of certain characters waxes and wanes in energy, with them growing depleted at times and then picking up the thread again. When evil rises and leaves the Schoolmaster or the Owl, they are immediately victims. We will retain a rounded sympathy for all sufferers. Indeed, our own moral status is possibly enhanced by how we are made to feel pity or apprehension for characters who we had previously hated. We will find ourselves worrying about the Owl on the brink of her toppling, even though less than an hour beforehand she was a pitiless killer. We are above these people, despairing and concerned, like an adult who has accidentally overheard how savage some children really are. We cannot happily enjoy such characters’ destruction because this would take us down amongst them and so, with a miserable sense of responsibility, we have to listen to their gropings and scrapings for redemption.

Aside from this evolution in the conventional morality of the melodrama – this avoidance of clichés of just desserts – realism is seldom made welcome in The Mysteries. Its characters are recruited to pose as models in a sociological brochure and the story is ultimately uncommitted to them independent of whatever political point they have been brought into exhibit. Take, for instance, the case of the “freshwater pirate” Martial, who remains coolly moralistic and who refuses to be corrupted by his cutthroat family. He will not love his mother unconditionally and, although this stance makes Martial come across as even more inhuman than she is, Sue labours his hardest to make it appear sane.

I doubt that any of his readers have ever believed a word of it. If Martial was a real person, he would retain some messy sympathy with his mother, the conversation between them would be altogether more familiar, and his story would be powered by a realism that rendered his crisis compelling and difficult. Instead, Martial’s supposed morality warps him into a stranger within his own family.

We know that Martial is good because he is assigned a passive or reactive role in the story. It is a rather wonderful defect of Sue’s writing that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels could tender a neutral description of the book in which two of the intentionally good characters, Father Laporte and Madame Georges, become villains. The story is so oddly constructed that it is not totally guaranteed that an insensitive reader might not behold it objectively and honestly mistake Rodolphe, the do-gooding hero, for a vicious despot.

Each character is generally a mechanism or a circuit board of reactions that cannot be overriden. Dr Griffon, for example, is made to represent the anatomist’s unsentimentality, as stiffly and as purely as possible, and his every utterance hammers on this one nail. The ineptness of Sue’s characterisation is exposed with the seductress Cecily. Her sexuality is made to sound like a kind of feverish supernaturalism but it has to be constantly described. It will never emerge from her speech or actions.

Both Eco and Prendergast show how Sue’s storytelling had lost coherence and focus as his readers had rallied around his politics. There are still over four hundred pages to go when the criminals are rounded up in Red Arm’s den. With the story lightened of its wrongdoers early, it is as though a thunderstorm has passed and left us with plodding rain. If we believe that the most important thing that this book has to do is to chronicle a suspenseful bust-up with a criminal gang, then we are being gently reproved. We are probably a little alienated from Sue’s sensation-squashing priorities and resentful at how our will is being governed. Eco complains that:

… as the work draws to a close, the tirades become more and more frequent, almost intolerably so… The book, which might at first have been entitled The Gangsters’ Epic, ends up as the Epic of the Unfortunate Workman and A Manual of Redemption.

Nevertheless, if we feed some historical imagination on the problem of The Mysteries’ popularity, we might conclude that we are unconsciously comparing it with more streamlined modes of fiction, which had been actually put into effect much later. By the early 1840s, the short story had achieved some organisation as a literary product, but the same discipline had rarely applied to novel writing. Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens did not greatly concern themselves with the engineering of thrills and suspense. Much more research and development in literature’s laboratories was still required. Wilkie Collins and Sheridan Le Fanu and Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker were yet to make their discoveries.

At the time, as Prendergast notes, “Sue was an operator in the literary marketplace who happened to find a formula that worked.” The Mysteries had struck a blow for progress largely through a stroke of luck.