In 1680, 73-year-old Mademoiselle de Scudéri is a respected poet at the court of Louis XIV in Paris. She inadvertently becomes involved in solving a series of murders and robberies that have mostly wealthy gentlemen as their targets who are on their way to their mistresses with expensive jewellery. These crimes have plagued the city for some time and the authorities are anxious to solve them.
First published in 1819, this is generally acknowledged as the first German crime fiction story, with the Mademoiselle at its centre as the amateur detective, although her forte is neither deduction nor investigation, but access to and influence with the king and other important people, and a compassionate and ingenious character that draws people to seek her confidence and assistance. She is based on the historical Madeleine de Scudéry who was a French writer and a highly educated, intellectual woman. Hoffmann also employs other historical figures like Louis XIV and his lover, the Marquise de Maintenon, or the president of a special court that had just been established at this particular time and which also plays a big role; this and other small details make the whole story and its setting very realistic and informative about Paris in those days.
Hoffmann’s prose and structuring of the plot is very precise, and through this he manages to create a tale that has some complexity but is disguised as a straightforward and simple story. Underneath the surface, however, are the criticism of a form of rule that allows a monarch to hold absolute power, and the rejection of excessive law-and-order practices that only serve to terrorise the people. The characters he describes, on the other hand, are not overly complex, but they are interesting enough, especially the perpetrator of the crimes whose mental affliction that led to murder is presented in great detail and is psychologically convincing. To sum it up, it’s an amusing and exciting read of a detective story from a time when there was not yet such a thing as a detective story, and with some layers and educational content to boot.
CBR11 Bingo: History/Schmistory