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I Am Vidocq by Vincent McConnor (Dodd, Mead: $16.95; 400 pp.)

February 02, 1986|Ronald Florence | Florence's most recent novel, "The Gypsy Man" (Villard), focuses on the trial of a man accused of a murder in a French town. and

The French underworld is an irresistible topic. The criminals, from Cartouche to Jean Paul Belmondo's urban bandits, are genuine swashbucklers. The authorities, with their secret detentions, bright light and thumbscrew interrogations, and the threats of the guillotine or Devil's Island, are worthy opponents. Until Peter Seller's Inspector Clouseau came along, the Surete enjoyed a reputation, like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for always getting their man. As the founder of the Surete, and the inspiration of many of the myths which surround the agency even today, Francois Eugene Vidocq is a natural subject.

Vincent McConnor's novel is dedicated to Balzac, and McConnor has made Balzac, along with Dumas pere , Daumier, and Henri Beyle (Stendhal), characters in his novel. Ever since E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," we have grown accustomed to having historical figures take their places in novels, but the technique is not easy: To be convincing, the vignettes need telling details of appearance and mannerism, and familiar inflections of speech. The aura of authenticity comes from good research worn lightly.

Alas, except that Balzac is short-legged, plump and a gourmand, there is little to distinguish McConnor's walk-on figures from one another. Balzac comments from time to time that some story or other would "make a good novel," which is an odd way of giving credit for the tales that are in fact cribbed from Balzac. All we recognize of Daumier is that he signs his pictures (sketches of cadavers that he is doing for Vidocq) with "HD." To remind us that the man is headed for greatness, McConnor has Vidocq tell us that "he was surprised by the crude power of the youth's work." Beyle is a cameo extra, not even a lovesick caricature of his own heroes (who in fact were all based on himself).

Dumas had the sheer romanticism of his heroes, Balzac his middle-class misers, Zola the inspiring grit of the underclass. In the century since they wrote, we have learned a lot about Paris and its underworld. Louis Chevalier's "Classics laborieuses et classes dangereuses" has inspired a whole school of studies of the criminal classes in Paris. Little of this excellent research has found its way into McConnor's novel.

McConnor's Vidocq has the requisite background for a romantic hero: A one-time criminal, framed, sent to prison and the galleys, by the time of the story (1823), he is one of the best-known men of Restoration Paris, a dandy whose criminal investigations take him to fine restaurants, expensive jewelers, courtesans and reformed prostitutes. He is present in every scene, and the story is told from his viewpoint, but after almost 400 pages, he remains a comic strip figure: He unerringly judges other men on a first meeting, is irresistible to women, kind to his dying wife, generous with stolen property, expert at ordering food and wine. His criminal investigation technique combines the appetite of Nero Wolfe, the debauchery of a Raymond Chandler hero, and the invulnerability of Superman. (That last comparison may be an understatement. In a climactic scene, Vidocq is actually able to dodge a bullet, which, if I recall correctly, was not among Superman's talents.)

As a spoof, the book might have been good fun. One plot is a convoluted tale of jewelry and whores that Vidocq traces to a masterminding syndicate in a club setting that seems to be modeled after genre movies of prohibition speak-easys in Chicago. After Vidocq exposes the syndicate, the author interjects: "The sinister rule of The Five was finished, their evil power destroyed." The other plot brings in the requisite mortal enemy of Vidocq from their days together in prison. The cliches get hopelessly tumbled here: The bad guy wears a black mask, but the confrontation in a warehouse seems drawn more from Bogart-era gangster movies than from Restoration Paris.

We have come to expect authenticity in our spoofs. When William F. Buckley writes about the CIA, his heroes can be outrageous, but we accept the spoof, even the bedding of the Queen, because of his ear, his eye for detail and his own brief experience working for the CIA. To make a convincing spoof of Restoration Paris, we need language more authentic than "Question everyone, down to the smallest garcon." At the very least, it could have been "Round up the usual suspects."

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