When a felon’s not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plan
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man
We had a marvelous vacation. Partly because, due to the kindness of both friends and strangers, we stayed in a wonderful apartment on the Left Bank, just behind the plaza of the Musee D’Orsay. And partly because we’ve been in Paris three times in the last twelve years, so the list of “must sees” has dwindled. That, and fantastic weather, freed us up to explore more nooks and crannies of this beautiful city.
As a part MCW’s continuing meditation on whether a crime writer can ever really take a vacation, while we were in Paris, we visited the Musee de la Prefecture de Police. We went because our guide on one of the marvelous Paris Walks recommended it, and partly because we’re both crime writers, so we’re interested.
The museum is on the second floor of a large police station in the Latin Quarter. Our Paris Walks guide had said it was “lightly trafficked” and I suppose it was compared to the hours-long lines at the Louvre or Eiffel Tower, but there was a steady stream of people there, both French and tourists when we visited.
History: In 1254, Louis IX, commonly known now as Saint Louis, founded the night Watch and the night Watch knights. Their motto, “He’s watching, so they rest,” is still the motto of the Paris prefecture. In 1725, the Paris police outlawed double parking and ordered the registration of carriages. All this makes the Paris police seem old and established, but the experience of the museum was quite different. In a city roiled time and again by revolution, invasion and occupation, where the government kept changing and with it the management of the police, the departments history felt tumultuous.
Vidocq: Francois Vidocq (1775-1857), an ex-prisoner (multiple times) and army deserter (multiple times) eventually became a police informer and from there he became the founder of the first police undercover squad in Paris. He was known for the extensive files he kept, his mastery of disguise, his photographic memory and his relentless pursuit of criminals and prison escapees. As the political winds changed, he became a founder of a paper company that employed mostly ex-convicts and, later, the founder of the first private detective agency. He is considered by many to be the father of modern criminology and was a model for both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, as well as many other characters in literature.
Picaud: Pierre Picaud was a shoemaker from Nimes who moved to Paris and prepared to marry a wealthy woman. Three jealous friends falsely accused him of being a spy for England on the morning of his wedding. He was tried and imprisoned. A dying cellmate bequeathed him a hidden treasure. Picaud returned to Paris and spent ten years plotting and carrying out revenge against the friends who denounced him. A fourth friend, who knew of the false accusations and did nothing to stop them, finally killed Picaud. The friend’s deathbed confession formed the basis for the story which was published in 1838 by Jacques Peuchet, a French police archivist. This story was the inspiration for Alexander Dumas’, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Note: Both of the above stories, and dozens of others, are brilliantly told in Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb, a book I read just before we left on our vacation.
Overall, Bill and I quite enjoyed our visit to the museum, a short and stop as we get to know this beautiful city.