Fantômas is everywhere. He is a master killer, a criminal genius, capable of being in multiple places at once. He can pretend to be anyone - even female - or so the story goes. And there are many, many stories of Fantômas. He is the everyman killer.
Or so Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, partners in writing, would have had the reader believe when they created Fantômas in 1911. Following this initial massive success, the two would go on to write thirty-one more Fantômas novels, and when Souvestre died, Allain wrote eleven more. Parisian appetite for stories of Fantômas's dastardly deeds was insatiable, 'a work of popular fiction whose popularity cut across all social and cultural strata,’ says John Ashbery, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition.
Fantômas catapulted the genius criminal to stratospheric popularity, as well as all but creating the modern criminal novel. The plot revolves around the mysterious killer, of whom very little is known at the beginning - and, delightfully, even less is known at the end. Indeed, the antagonist throughout the novel may not even be Fantômas, one of the many strokes of genius in this novel.
Charles Rambert waits anxiously to meet his father, whom he has not seen in many years. The evening before his father's arrival, Charles learns the story of Fantômas, a master criminal who may or may not exist, who may or may no longer be active as a killer. Excited by these stories, he sleeps poorly. In the morning, after he has collected his father from the train station, it is revealed that the Marquise de Langruen has been brutally murdered:
'Mme. de Langrune's throat was almost entirely severed by the blade of some sharp instrument. The breadth and depth of the wound absolutely prove that it was not made with one stroke; the murderer must have gone amok and dealt several blows.’ Suspicion is placed on the only logical shoulders - Charles.
Princess Sonia, 'not pretty but lovely,’ is bathing in a hotel room, alone. Suddenly a man grips her arm, covers her mouth with his hand. A conversation - witty, calm, urbane, intelligent, menacing - ensues. Sonia is robbed; the thief escapes. Later, Lord Beltham, missing and presumed dead, is found in the abandoned home of Gurn, a mysterious traveller not often seen at his home. More suspicion is piled on Charles' absent shoulders until he, too, is found murdered in a river, fished out of the water by a vagabond.
The man working on all of these cases is Juve, a single-minded, bloody-minded detective who has hunted Fantômas for years: 'There was not a single person who had not heard of Juve and his marvelous exploits, or who did not regard him as a kind of hero.' We do not learn much of Juve's personal life because we do not need to - it is sufficient to the novel that he is a man obsessed, driven to capture the most elusive of all prey.
The story is told at a number of locations around Paris. Often, we know less about what is happening than Juve, who seems always to be one step ahead of the reader and the other characters - but never Fantômas. A scene will develop with the slightest of links to the main arching story, but then a sudden twist and we are back firmly within the realm of Juve and Fantômas as they struggle to outwit the other. Allain and Souvestre manage to keep a tight rein on the plot in this manner, always curling the story back to its central conceit.
For a novel that deals with a shadowy murderer who may or may not exist, the ending is brilliant. We are left with a clear, defined killer and a clear, defined victory for Juve - but was the captured murderer really Fantômas? The final twist is shocking, touching and very sad. Tension mounts until it is almost unbearable, with the final pages allowing a number of further adventures - forty-two more, in fact.
Fantômas was written to a deadline, following a careful sequence decided beforehand by the two authors. It is important to remember that they went on to write nine more novels that year. That Fantômas is of such high quality is remarkable. I cannot personally vouch for the remaining forty-odd novels, but the series certainly begins on a high note. For fans of the crime/thriller genre, this novel is recommended to see where it all began. For fans of fine literature, this novel is recommended as an important novel in the progression from gothic to contemporary popular literature. Recommended for all, in other words.