'What did you say?'
'I said... Fantômas.'
'What does that mean?'
'Nothing... and everything.'
'Still, what is it?'
'Nobody... yet nevertheless somebody!'
'For the last time, what does this somebody do?'
- Fantômas, Pierre Souvestre & Marcel Allain.
Fantômas is the main villain in a series of 32 detective novels, written in the early 1910s by French journalists Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain1. The initial purpose of this series was to provide original material to launch editor Arthème Fayard's new collection Le Livre Populaire (the Popular Book). This collection was aiming at broad readership by publishing cheap books2, each of which would contain one full story, as opposed to 19th-Century feuilletons (ie novels serialised in newspaper daily installment).
The Generic Plot
Usually, the story goes like this: a series of baffling crimes (involving audacious thefts and atrocious murders) are committed. Inspector Juve and journalist Fandor suspect Fantômas to mastermind them. After some time of eventful hide-and-seek and momentous chasing around, the policeman eventually thwarts the criminal's plans and gets hold of him. A stunning last-minute trick nevertheless allows the Unseizable to escape.
The action is mostly located in real-life every-day Paris - a colourful, eventful version of the capital city where the reader is taken from the underworld, swarming with tramps, apaches3 and low-life taverns to upper-class hotels, big stores or banks. Part of the action often takes place outside the Parisian region, in France (for example in Normandy, which was a dear location to Pierre Souvestre), or in foreign countries (such as Monaco or South Africa).
The plot's setting is very modern and, in some sense, realistic. Characters drive cars4; Fantômas uses fancy devices to rob, kill or escape the police; Alphonse Bertillon occasionally gives a hand to Juve with his brand new forensics methods; Fantômas also seems to be amongst the first criminals to use mass-media to spread terror (he'll always make the front page of the newspaper La Capitale for instance). Events take place in actual well-known places, and the feeling of reality is enhanced by occasional appearance of real-life people, such as Monsieur de Paris (the executioner Anatole Deibler), creator of anthropometry Alphonse Bertillon, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, prefect of police Louis Lépine. Last, some details of the plots were inspired by the news, as for instance the sinking of the steamer Gigantic.
Gallery of Characters
FantômasAlso known as the Lord of Terror, the Genius of Crime, the Unseizable. He performs audacious criminal atrocities (mass-scale robbing and murdering) for no obvious reason. Human lives mean nothing to him, even more so when his own protection is at stake5. Fantômas's most striking feature is his ability to disguise himself; much more than taking a false identity, he utterly becomes someone else: the London dentist Dr Garrick for instance is a known resident of the Putney district; the American detective Tom Bob is a member of Scotland Yard's Top Council of Five detectives - obviously a role that cannot be improvised! Another quite popular and entertaining quality of Fantômas is his skill at devising and using complex machinery or involved conjuring tricks to commit baffling robberies or unexplainable crimes, while leaving no doubt as to who was the instigator. Sometimes these are just last-minute ways to escape the hand of justice6.
Inspector JuveThe lawful counterpart of Fantômas. Described as the best detective at the Sûreté7, he's proud to serve Justice. He's a brave man, modest albeit not humble - he will speak bluntly but deferentially to his superiors. He's also a master of disguise but, unlike Fantômas, the reader almost always knows which characters are yet another of Juve's impersonations.
Jérôme FandorA reckless young fellow, seductive and politely impudent. Juve and Fandor are like father and son, all the more since the young man got wrongly accused of the murder of his father and Juve got him out of that situation by providing him a false identity and a job as a reporter for the daily newspaper La Capitale8. In their perpetual hunt for the Unseizable, he'll always run head first into tangled or delicate situations.
Lady BelthamAn Englishwoman, distantly related to the King. She's beautiful, rich and likeable. She was married to Lord Beltham when she fell in love with young corporal Gurn. Only when Gurn kills her husband does she discover that he is none other than Fantômas! Nevertheless, she can't help keeping on loving him. So she spends a lot of time torn between love and justice: she'll help her lover escape an arrest by any conceivable means but on the other hand would try anything to save those who are under the ruthless criminal's menace.
HélèneShe's Fantômas's daughter. A lovely, smart, cute and athletic brunette. Fandor fell under her spell but her terrible ancestry prevents her from requiting his love. As a daughter, she often feels compelled to try and protect her father from Juve and Fandor; yet she strongly disapproves of his criminal activities.
The apachesThey're a rude and greedy bunch who carry picturesque nicknames such as Bec-de-Gaz ('Gas pipe'), Oeil-de-Boeuf ('Bull's Eye'), Beaumôme ('Pretty Boy') or Mort Subite ('Sudden Death'). They're more into theft, petty villainy or kidnapping than actual murder, though killing won't really bother them if necessary. Innate violence may also lead them to crime (as for instance Bec-de-Gaz who beat his mistress to death when she allowed one of their captives to escape). They usually work in organised gangs which quite often turn out to be controlled by Fantômas.
BouzilleHe's a picturesque, shrewd, alcoholic tramp. He will provide information to the police in the morning, work for an apaches gang at noon and help Fandor in the evening. He performs numerous odd jobs throughout the series, such as 'rich beggar' in Monte-Carlo, corpse robber (providing a sinister skeleton supplier of the university of medicine with raw material), leeche fisher or professional 'drowner'. Passages involving Bouzille are usually lighter, funny moments in the books.
None. Stilted dialogues, shallow character types and nearly endless repetitions of limited story plots are the basic criticisms usually formulated towards the Fantômas series. These drawbacks could be accounted for by the need for two authors to come up with a 400-pages novel every month. This is how they proceeded: for three days, meeting at Souvestre's. They choose the storyline, the gags and prepare a detailed plot divided in chapters. These chapters get distributed at random between the two authors. Then they both go their way, dictating their share of chapters by means of a Dictaphone for about one week 9. Their respective recordings are sent to typists, who type the text during another week. Last, the following two days, the authors meet again to take a (first!) look at the whole novel, correcting syntax errors and writing transitions between chapters. Legend has it that Souvestre used toutefois and Allain néanmoins ('however' and 'nevertheless') at the beginning of each of their own chapters, so they would recognise who wrote which10.
This method of writing, though, gave the books definite popular qualities. Stories were briskly paced, written in a lively style, a 'pastiche of orality' (involving more dialog than written scenes or descriptions) quite adapted to this kind of momentous plots. What may have drawn the reader to buy a new episode every month was certainly not to find out 'who did it' (Fantômas did it every time), nor whether the villain would escape the police (he naturally would), but what kind of new atrocities the Lord of Terror would be up to and what ingenious tricks and traps Juve and Fandor would set to catch him.
Fantômas was also very popular amongst surrealists such as Belgian painter René Magritte or French poets Robert Desnos and Guillaume Apollinaire. Some consider the novels as a first example of 'exquisite corpse'11, due to the (nearly automatic) writing method used by the authors. French columnist Alexandre Vialatte would also see some kind of poetry in these texts, as illustrated by the following quote:
Fantômas thrust his dagger into his heart. But it would take more than that to make Fandor lose consciousness.
Philippe Azoury and Jean-Marc Lalanne: Fantômas, Style Moderne, Editions Centre Pompidou, Editions Yellow Now (2002).
Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain: Fantômas, vol. 1 - 3, Laffont (Bouquins), Paris (1987). Additional notes and comments by Francis Lacassin.
Robin Walz: Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris, University of California Press (Berkeley), 2000.