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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Pierre Souvestre  and  Marcel Allain

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To purchase Fantômas

Title: Fantômas
Authors: Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1911 (Eng. 1915; rev. 1986)
Length: 304 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Fantômas - US
Fantômas - UK
Fantômas - Canada
in Fantômas: Tome I - Canada
in Fantômas: Tome I - France
Fantomas - Italia
Fantomas - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • French title: Fantômas
  • Translated by Cranstoun Metcalfe
  • The 1986 edition (re-issued 2006 as a Penguin Classics edition) is a translation that is: "a modernized version" of the one published in 1915
  • With an Introduction by John Ashbery

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Our Assessment:

B+ : ridiculous, but good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Literary World . 9/12/1915 .
The LA Times . 10/8/1986 Merle Rubin
The NY Times . 8/7/1986 John Gross
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/7/1986 Delacorta
The Washington Post . 20/7/1986 H.H.Broun

  From the Reviews:
  • "The story itself has an extraordinarily involved plot with an utterly unexpected and, we should say, impossible ending if we did not know that truth is always stranger than fiction. (...) The reader who asks for sensation will have no cause of complaint" - The Literary World

  • "The character of Fantomas is devoid of fascination: Not only does his portrait lack psychological depth, but even his surface features are rather blank. So too the characters of Inspector Juve, his tireless pursuer; Lady Beltham, his aristocratic lover; and Fandor, the young reporter who is Juve’s foil. (...) Nor are the storylines particularly remarkable. (...) And judging from this first Fantomas novel, one would also have to conclude that the twists and turns by which the crimes are perpetrated do not even offer mystery lovers the satisfaction of trying to unravel a difficult puzzle. We get to see the ruses before Inspector Juve does, making many of the scenes involving his detective work simply redundant." - Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It would be hopeless to try to summarize the plot, and pointless to protest at its implausibilities and loose ends. (...) Yet the discontinuities are not really very troublesome in practice. One episode simply melts away as the next takes over, and you soon learn to go along submissively with the quick-change acts and dispersed identities. Everything moves forward as though in a dream. (...) (T)he fact remains that by any normal standards Fantômas is a fairly trashy piece of writing. Its dreamlike narrative works, but only just" - John Gross, The New York Times

  • "The text is redolent of another age; its construction and style lack the sinew demanded by today's tastes, but these faults, inherent in the yammerings of the police genre, are compensated for by an undeniable charm and several sharp plot twists. There are also moments of iconoclastic glee giving rise to those brutal images that so charmed the Surrealists. One may easily imagine Fantômas posing for Man Ray's camera." - Delacorta, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is, I suspect one of his fascinations that, unlike the richly described Fu Manchu, he is shadowy in everything except the absolute nature of his evil. His word, unlike Dr. Fu's, is worthless, his compunctions nonexistent, and his physical powers tremendous. He evokes, too, a time when the emerging splendor of La Belle Epoque cast a lurid and cruel light on those parts of the Parisian world which remained stubbornly dark and wretched, those twisted streets where Fantomas prowled with the same ease with which, disguised as the nobbiest of nobs, he entered the drawing rooms of the great. (…) (T)hese bits of grit in the smooth cream of the wonderfully over-flavored prose do not really spoil the feeling that as we read we are living in a time of intensity and danger when only the celebrated and strangely unsuccessful Inspector Juve stands between us and the steel hands of Fantomas, hands that can shut off forever the flow of rich wines and festive foods on the ornate table just out of our reach in the suddenly darkened room." - Heywood Hale Broun, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The eponymous Fantômas proves to be not only elusive but, as his name implies, phantomical. As someone sums up early on:

That he is a living person is certain and undeniable, yet he is impossible to catch or to identify. He is nowhere and everywhere at once, his shadow hovers above the strangest mysteries, and his traces are found near the most inexplicable crimes, and yet --
       One man who is convinced of Fantômas' existence -- and for his being responsible for many horrific crimes -- is the detective Juve, "the famous Inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department". Juve has the highest of reputations -- he is considered: "the most expert inspector of them all" -- but, as a magistrate tells him: "Fantômas is a perfect obsession with you", and this figure of the relentless hunter is much more at the fore in Fantômas than the shadowy hunted.
       One reason Fantômas is so slippery is because he disguises himself -- as, indeed, down to its shocking conclusion, Fantômas relies on a succession of characters assuming other identities and appearances: repeatedly, people are not who they seem (or who they give themselves out to be). Juve is one of those who plays that game as well, repeatedly conducting his investigations in disguise, so as to better get information than he might if he presented himself in his official capacity. (There's also one young suspected murderer who goes around for a time dressed as a woman.)
       The novel opens at the château of Beaulieu, overseen by the Marquise de Langrune. Among her houseguests is eighteen-year-old Charles Rambert, who is soon joined by his father Etienne -- a man Charles last saw three years earlier ("and then just for a few minutes") and, indeed, who has barely figured in his life so far. When Charles and the Marquise's granddaughter, Thérèse, return to the château with Etienne after picking him up from the local train station they are faced with an awful discovery -- "Mme la Marquise dead -- murdered -- in her room !"
       It's only the first of several crimes -- thefts and murders -- which Juve believes to be connected -- and, of course, believes to all be the work of Fantômas. While everyone else believes the Marquise's murder is obviously attributable to someone else, Juve is not convinced: it's obvious to him that this too: "is a typical Fantômas crime".
       One name that attracts Juve's attention is that of Gurn, and he certainly seems a suspicious -- even criminal -- character. Gurn is eventually caught by the police and imprisoned and put on trial, but Juve believes there's even more to it -- that Gurn is Fantômas, and connected to even more heinous crimes than he has been charged with. It seems clear to Juve -- but even he has to admit at the end that: "I have nevertheless not succeeded in establishing legal proof that Gurn is Fantômas".
       Is there even a Fantômas, or is Juve chasing smoke and mirrors ? As a magistrate tells Juve:
Between you and me, you know perfectly well that Fantômas is merely a legal fiction -- a lawyer's joke. Fantômas has no existence in fact !
       Juve knows otherwise -- but proving Fantômas' very existence seems impossible. Behind many layers of subterfuge -- and identity -- wiley Fantômas evades true capture. As Juve acknowledges: "Nothing is impossible for Fantômas". So even if he is Gurn, imprisoned and sentenced to die on the guillotine, Fantômas at least will still avoid that fate .....
       The ease with which Fantômas eludes detection, and being caught and tried for (all) his crimes, is very far-fetched, but in its very wild invention Souvestre and Allain offer considerable solid suspense.
       The obsessed Juve is nearly as super-human as his criminal counterpart: as one admirer sums up:
     "That man," she constantly declared to Madame Aurore, "hasn't got eyes in his head, but telescopes, magnifying glasses ! He sees everything in a second -- even when it isn't there !"
       Part of the success of the novel is that hovering doubt -- that 'Fantômas' is indeed illusion, that he truly 'isn't there' and that obsessed Juve simply projects onto the crimes he investigates. Too focused on grisly and near-breakneck action in keeping their story moving, the authors can't indulge in this as fully as one might wish, but it still is a clever added element to the novel.
       More problematic is that Fantômas seems little more than a genius of crime-for-crime's-sake (and for escaping any consequences for his actions). He is not pure evil -- evil doesn't seem his motivation either -- but certainly callous, and without more insight into the character he remains an almost bland cipher. The fact that for much of the book he is -- or seems to be -- such a shadowy presence (or lack of a presence ...) is also problematic: one wants to see and know more of him (and, not least, his motivation(s)).
       A somewhat messy tale -- certainly arbitrary, in various ways, including much of the plot, which zigs and zags all over the place -- Fantômas is far from neatly-done mystery or thriller-fiction -- yet it's still thoroughly engaging and a lot of good fun. The plot -- seriously convoluted -- actually turns out to be quite well-conceived, and the dramatic end is certainly a very good one. It's all a bit slapdash -- not least in the character and actions of Juve, popping up all over the place where he thinks Fantômas may have been involved --, but exciting enough along the way not to be annoying. Even the literary quality -- certainly very pulpish, but stylish, too -- is higher than many of the reviewers give it credit for.
       A fine, fun piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 May 2024

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Fantômas: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French authors Pierre Souvestre (1874-1914) and Marcel Allain (1885-1969) are best known for their Fantômas-novels.

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© 2024 the complete review

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