Criminal Bodies

‘Did you just get engaged to break into an office?’ a scandalised Watson asks Sherlock in the latest episode of the BBC’s current adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories. ‘His Last Vow’ ingeniously updates ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’, in which Holmes is pitted against an ophidian master-blackmailer. In the original story, in order to gain access to Milverton’s house, Sherlock courts a maid working there, going so far as to become engaged to her. This takes a matter of days, and only a few lines of text. In the updated version, the role of the false engagement is considerably expanded to tease us with the idea of Sherlock in love. But again the relationship is revealed to be a ruse: Holmes proposes to the blackmailer’s PA because she controls access to her boss’s office. ‘As long as there’s people, there’s always a weak spot’, he remarks.

But would there be people in this day and age? Dramatically successful though the scene was, watching it I found myself wondering if our master-blackmailer – powerful and paranoid in equal measure – would rely on such an old-school identification system as having someone check that you look like the person you claim to be, when he could have plumped for a voice recognition system, or a handheld DNA detector. Nowadays, biometric technology companies routinely bring to market new software products purporting to be able to recognise individuals from more and more unlikely physiological characteristics: iris recognition, retina recognition, face recognition, finger recognition, vein recognition, ear recognition, gait recognition. All sold with the promise that these systems are infallible because you can’t fool an algorithm, you can’t bribe an algorithm and you certainly can’t seduce an algorithm. No people, no weak spots.

In fact, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock was born around the same time as the biometric control society, and was an admirer of its most celebrated pioneer, Alphonse Bertillon. Bertillon was a clerk working in the Paris police service in the 1880s, a period when worries about recidivism had reached fever pitch among the French public. Since the abolition of judicial branding in 1832 identifying recidivists was a perennial source of frustration for the Paris police – indeed, after the Commune in 1870, identifying anyone was a source of frustration for the police, as all public records dating from before 1859 had been incinerated, leaving the citizens of Paris free to invent new identities at will. Bertillon thus devised a new system of identification, based on anthropometrics. Measuring bits of the body was a favourite (pseudo-) scientific pastime in the second half of the 19th century. Osteometry, craniometry, organometry, encephalometry, psychometry, physiometry, somatometry, biometry ­– all were practised with gusto on colonial subjects, fallen women, vagabonds, anarchists and common criminals, in the belief that identity was a essentially a matter of statistics, that in standard deviation lay the key to deviancy.

Bertillon’s aims were not as lofty as those of criminologists such as Cesare Lombroso, who sought to provide an exhaustive inventory of the physiological markers of criminality, or anthropologists such as Vacher de Lapouge, who busied himself drawing up elaborate racial taxonomies. Bertillon was concerned with identifying not biotypes, but simply individual criminals; to which end in 1883 he trialled a new system that involved taking 14 different physical measurements of all those who passed through the Paris prefecture of police, photographing them, and filing the results in a complexly cross-indexed system. His favourite body part was the ear: ‘thanks to these multiple small valleys and hills which furrow across it, [it] is the most significant factor from the point of view of identification. Immutable in its form since birth, resistant to the influences of environment and education, this organ remains, during the entire life, like the intangible legacy of heredity and of the intra-uterine life’. Indeed, it is a telltale ear that tips Holmes off to the solution to the mystery of ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’. 

Bertillonnage would eventually be displaced by fingerprinting, a competing system of forensic identification developed in England by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and the founder of modern eugenics. But in France, where it was in use until the First World War, it had wide-ranging cultural effects, registered most sensitively in the popular crime serials that proliferated in the belle époque. At the same time as British readers were marvelling at Sherlock Holmes’s incredible feats of deduction, French readers were enthralled by the adventures of Arsène Lupin, gentleman-thief, or chilled by the exploits of the diabolical Fantômas, the emperor of crime – both super-criminals who repeatedly pit their wits against Alphonse Bertillon and his service d’anthropométrie.

Lupin was the creation of a minor naturalist novelist, Maurice Leblanc, who had had some critical but no commercial success, and was scratching out a living selling stories to the French magazines, when, in 1905, he was commissioned to produce a French version of Sherlock Holmes. And thus was born Arsène Lupin, trailing his own legend: ‘Arsène Lupin, that fanciful gentleman who operates only in high society and who, having broken into Baron Schormann’s one night and departed empty-handed, left his visiting card adorned with the inscription: ‘Arsène Lupin, gentleman-thief, will come back when the furnishings are authentic’. Arsène Lupin, the man of a thousand disguises: by turns a chauffeur, tenor, bookmaker, younger son, adolescent, old man, travelling salesman from Marseille, Russian doctor and ‘Spanish matador’.

To ensure a clear point of difference from his English model, Leblanc made his hero a thief, as well as a keen amateur detective, and in so doing created one of the great trickster figures of French literature, whose essence lies in his paradoxicality: gentleman and thief, criminal and detective, Lupin consistently disrupts fixed patterns of identity, a master of disguise able to assume and slough off new identities at will. As he himself explains: ‘Why should I have a defined appearance? Why not avoid the danger of always having the selfsame personality?’ Danger – and also drudgery. Written at a time when it was becoming more and more difficult in practice to escape identification, when the bureaucratic apparatus was ratcheting up its control, the Lupin stories let readers into a universe where transformation was always possible, a universe of endless potential, with a hero desirous above all of the chance to live multiple lives.

If the Arsène Lupin stories are delightfully light and frothy confections, the Fantômas stories provide far more lurid thrills. Written by two cycling journalists who managed to churn out a 300-page novel every month from 1912 until the First World War interrupted their literary activities, they enraptured the avant-garde. Max Jacob, Apollinaire and Picasso together founded a Société des Amis de Fantômas to whom the sensationalist, hallucinatory qualities of the prose, with gloves made of flayed skin, and swarms of killer bees, appealed. Each novel recounts the crimes of Fantômas, the detective Juve’s dogged attempts to bring him to justice, and his inevitable escape. Unlike Golden Age Anglo-American detective stories, the question in Fantômas is never ‘Whodunit?’ – Fantômas himself always done it – but rather ‘Who is Fantômas?’. As his name suggests, he has a spectral, ghostly quality; he is not a character in the conventional sense, but a haunting presence in the texts: ‘Sometimes he incarnates himself in the person of a specific, even a well-known, individual; sometimes he takes the form of two human beings at once! … Fantômas! He is nowhere and he is everywhere!’ Fantômas is a name without a body; rather than labelling an identity, the word Fantômas executes a function – that of committing crime and producing terror.

Because he has no embodied identity, the entire apparatus of Bertillonnage is useless. As Detective Juve says, ‘his audacity is without measure, because his strength is incalculable’. Fantômas represents a principle of resistance to the statistical culture of the Belle Époque, to its mania for quantification. The frenzied accumulation of horrors in the books, the piling up of corpses, the constant escalation of violence (the books start with violent robberies and end with acts of biological terrorism), the crescent freneticism – all these defy measurement. The only laws the books know are those of inflation, expansion, acceleration. There is no place for the bell curve in this universe.   

There is a tendency to look back on the 19th century as an age of epistemological innocence, when it was possible to believe in truth and meaning and progress and other childish things. Our great-great-great grandparents didn’t know about Nietzsche, so they thought there was such a thing as truth. They didn’t know about Freud, so they thought they knew what they wanted. They didn’t know about Heisenberg, so they didn’t really know about uncertainty – not radical, foundational uncertainty. They didn’t know about Auschwitz, so they thought that historical progress was a simple matter of constant scientific and technological advancement.  But when it comes to crime and policing, we are as in thrall as they were to the claims of science – the language of ‘breakthroughs’ is unstinting, as we continue to hope that just around the corner is a new forensic tool that will eliminate the possibility of judicial error, that in the future no crime will go unsolved. Sherlock Holmes, with his magnifying glass, remains a poster boy for scientific policing. But the age of scientific policing is also the age of biometric control, and if Lupin and Fantômas continue to elicit a frisson of pleasure, it is because they provide compensatory fantasy that we need now more than ever, the fantasy of disembodied identities, mutable and protean. They offer readers not the cerebral delights of ratiocination, but the imaginative thrills of giving in to the temptations of multiplicity.