I asked my Dad if he knew anything about Vidocq (which I myself certainly didn’t, until I became interested in what French police was like in Javert’s days), and he went and found me this adorable book on some dusty shelf!
It’s a translation from German, The Big Ear of Paris by Gerhand Feix, published in Russian (abbreviated! they even admit that) in 1981. Basically, it’s a short anecdotal history of French police (mostly Sûreté), from 16th till 20th century. It sounds much better than it actually is: it’s extremely ideologized (and I do mean extremely so, even to my tastes, and I’ve been brought up on Soviet introductions to classics quoting Marx and Lenin on twenty pages) and not really deep (well, unless you count ‘police is a political tool of bourgeoisie and Reaction against the holy proletariat’ as deep, and that’s the main idea of the book).
Of the period which interests us Hugolians there isn’t much at all, just short characteristics of Fouché and Vidocq and their methods (most of which even I knew already).
And yet, thanks to that book I’ve discovered another delightful thing related to Javert (apart from the cover itself, which is, in my opinion, adorable :)). Now I finally understand why the key to Gorbeau’s house which Marius surrenders to Javert is called a ‘passe-partout’, ‘pass-key’ (which to my mind means ‘jimmy’, and that’s how it was rendered into Russian). In Feix’s book, a case is described where a doorkeeper had a key with the bit filed off and so it could open all the doors in the house (which led to him being accused of murder, but the reason for him having it was simpler: his original key he was ordered to give to the madame’s lover). It only stands to reason that this ‘universal key’ is exactly the thing Hugo calls a passkey. (Now only to investigate if that thing could open sewer gates…)
On a vaguely related note, I’m more confused than ever about the branding of convicts. When Valjean was condemned in 1796, the practice was certainly in full swing, we hear about it also both from Hugo himself and from Chenildieu who tried to get rid of his brand by burning the skin off. It wasn’t personalised, of course (just letters TF, ‘travaux forcés,’ if memory serves), but still: how exactly could they confuse the honest-but-stupid Champmathieu with our Valjean if the former has never been to the galleys? I always sort of laughed it off in the musical, but I’ve never considered that it’s all there in the book. A plot hole? The mind reels, conspiracy theories start building…