The Underworld

Notable French Criminals


The System

Famous Crime






"...there was a new variety of crime literature in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and some criminals found themselves objects of passionate public interest, lionized by a considerable sector of the social elite."

(Wright , 30)

In one way or another, everyone in Hugo's France was talking about crime. Hugo's Les Miserables offers us several points of departure for talking about crime in peoples lives and the criminals that influenced the new fascinating trend of fictionalized "true" crime:

First, take a look at Vidocq, named by some as the father of crime literature in France, others as the father of forensic science in crime detection. Criminal, detective, writer and celebrity, Vidocq instilled fear and admiration in criminals and in Hugo, who drew on Vidocq's life and memoirs for at least one of his characters in Les Miserables.

• For instance, there is Jean Valjean, Hugo's reformed galley-slave. Using disguises and wit to keep out of prison, Valjean employs many of the methods Vidocq wrote of in his memoirs.

• The other side of this coin is Javert, Hugo's authority extraordinaire. Javert's reputation among criminals and successful detection mirror that of Vidocq in his later years working for the police.

Marius, Hugo's bohemian hero, represents another aspect to crime in daily life. His interactions with the Jondrette family (his criminal neighbors) and his flight to a new tenement in the face of police investigation show us both the perceptions of the lower classes regarding criminals and the close association between the conditions and perceptions of what the bourgeoisie term the "dangerous classes."

• Marius' flight may seem excessive, but a real life story of an innocent man in proximity to criminals serves to shed light on Marius' fears. Joseph Lesurques was condemned and executed for a crime he did not commit. His only contact with the crime -that he had once dined with an accomplice to the deed.

However, not all members of the "dangerous classes" were innocent or driven to their crimes by conditions of poverty. Montparnasse, Hugo's vicious dandy, presumably committed his bloody crimes merely to maintain his fine wardrobe.

• These more glamorous connoisseurs of crime were inspired by the flashy killers of the time like Lacenaire. With his eloquent speeches and chilling charisma, Lacenaire captured the hearts and minds of many, including finer society ladies.

Hugo wasn't the only author who picked up this thread of true crime. Alexandre Dumas was fascinated with true crimes, and his book The Count of Monte Cristo recounts the famous tale of a man's revenge for false imprisonment.

• Here is the true story behind The Count of Monte Cristo, the story of Pierre Picaud.