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la corde au cou

23 september 2016

Of Émile Gaboriau's five major novels, La corde au cou is the only one that does not feature the policeman Lecoq or his eccentric mentor Tabaret. We do get to see a detective reminiscent of Lecoq, a certain Goudar, who does some private investigating for the defense. But La corde au cou is actually a legal thriller.

Gaboriau made great early contributions to the the detective novel and the police procedural. But he's also a pioneer of the courtroom novel. Defendant Jacques de Boiscoran has been accused of a heinous crime: deadly arson coupled with attempted murder by shotgun. La corde au cou traces how his lawyers construct his defense – and how, in the process, they must solve the crime. It's full of surprise revelations, operatives on the hunt for missing witnesses, and of course the climactic courtoom showdown.

The novel begins fast, transporting us along with several key characters to the still-smoldering scene of the crime. The Comte de Claudieuse clings to life after being gunned down on his own estate, not long after a person or persons unknown have set it ablaze. Two firefighters die after responding, and the Comte's young daughters are barely saved from the fire by the village idiot Cocoleu. When asked who shot at the Comte, Cocoleu answers: M. de Boiscoran.

Boiscoran had every motive to shoot at the Comte, being the Comtesse's long-time lover. On the other hand, he had no motive. He'd broken off with the Comtesse and was engaged in turn to Denise de Chandoré, a local heiress. You know who has a motive to kill Claudieuse? His own wife, of saintly reputation and kinky private habits. If she's free of her husband, she might be able to browbeat Boiscoran into marrying her instead.

Which of these characters knows how much about each of the others is complicated, and Gaboriau complicates the story further by introducing too many members of Boiscoran's defense team, as well as many assorted figures from the legal system. Boiscoran is helped directly or indirectly by the mayor Séneschal, the procureur Daubigeon, the physician Seignebos, two lawyers (the illustrious Magloire and the sharp young Folgat), the scrivener Méchinet, the jailer Blangin; he's assailed by the magistrate Galpin-Daveline and the barrister Du Lopt de la Gransière … It's not that they don't have character notes. Daubigeon, the collector of classical tags, is particularly Dickensian: Seignebos is a raving radical republican, Galpin-Daveline a legal stickler (who ironically makes a formal error that serves as a deus ex machina in the story). But there are just twice as many of them as can play useful roles in the plot.

La corde au cou means "the rope around your neck," and you would think that it refers to the mortal danger run by Boiscoran in the course of his trial. But of course the death sentence in France in the 1870s meant the guillotine, not the noose. So instead the rope refers to the woman that Boiscoran has pawned his comfort to, the cold-blooded Comtesse de Claudieuse. "La corde que je m'étais passée autour du cou," he calls their relationship (325), "the rope that I'd looped around my neck": "j'avais pour la vie cette corde fatale [I'd have that fatal rope around me forever] (330)." Not a great view to take about one's girlfriend, even if she's married and possessive. But even the horrid Comtesse has her good side, and ends up making a final beau geste.

An interesting exchange about legal strategy takes place just before the trial. Attorney Folgat explains courtroom rhetoric to the defendant Boiscoran:

Que sera le réquisition prononcé contre vous? Le résumé du roman imaginé par le juge d'instruction. … Opposez-lui un autre roman qui prouve que vous êtes innocent! (465)
[What's the case against you? The summary of a novel imagined by the magistrate. … Counter that with another novel that proves you're innocent!]
The novel presents its own truth; but within that truth, there are various possible ways of writing a novel. A nice mise en abyme.

Gaboriau, Émile. La corde au cou. 1873. Paris: Libraire des Champs-Élysées [Hachette], 2004.