Thank goodness I’d read Dawn of the Belle Epoque before attempting this! The author does try to explain some of the events surrounding the murder, but I knew so little of this time before, I would have been hopelessly lost. The thing is, I don’t read true crime…basically ever. There is a great combination of reasons why, but this book maneuvered around almost all my issues, with the exception of some of the more detailed aspects of the forensic science parts.
In 1889, while France and the World were enjoying Eiffel’s new tower, Michel Eyraud (pictured right) and Gabrielle Bompard (pictured left) – his young mistress – set a trap for Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé and murdered him. (I’m devising a theory that World’s Fairs breed insanity and murder. Think about all the books that have come out about them.) It had been a carefully planned attempt to get some money, which didn’t really work out, and then skipped the city and later the country. The events are interesting enough but the writing does a good job of holding your interest and keeping things moving, even when nothing’s happening. This was a long case, mostly because Eyraud didn’t leave the police much to work with. The body was not found until mid-August (he was murdered on July 26) in a town close to Lyon. It was found so late, the body was not believed to be Gouffé (pictured right) until Marie-François Goron’s – chief of Paris’ police – repeated attempts to prove his intuition paid off with a forensic investigation that pushed the bounds of the fledgling science. This also proved to be Eyraud and Bompard’s downfall, as the trunk they used to move the body was special enough to tie back to them.
This story has everything: international chases, hypnotism (which was very popular; studied and debated as a science; and Gabrielle was very susceptible and attempted to use it as her defense), and amazing policing by Goron (pictured left) who went on to write accounts of his cases. The court case…was not my favorite part. I tend to be more interested in the police work then the lawyer-ing but this was a hotly debated case with Bompard’s difficult background and Eyraud’s many previous illegal actions being raised. It was a media storm and the truly sad part was that I’m not sure Bompard completely grasped what was going on half the time. Through the trial, she grew increasingly erratic and Eyraud’s mere presence seemed to exacerbate that.
While I enjoyed this book, there were things that bothered me. Facts wise, learning that someone made small copies of the infamous trunk and stuffed them with chocolates to sell!
Also, I learned far more about the Moulin Rouge then I think I ever wanted to. One of their famous performers, Le Pétomane, was a flatulist – he could make sound effects and even play music by…farting. I kid you not. (Here is his article on Wikipedia…if you want to learn more.)
The last thing that bothered me while I was reading this book was…it’s difficult to explain. I remember while reading Dawn of the Belle Epoque that I was immersed in French history, culture, society, and even at times their way of thinking. I did not feel the same way while reading this book. It is a good book and well written, very easy to read but it in the end feels more like someone on the outside looking in rather than drawing the reader in. I guess what I’m trying to explain is that I never quite escaped an American POV while reading this. That’s not necessarily bad, certainly the comparisons and information provided were geared more to my understanding…but I had seen this done better recently and it showed. Truthfully, the author did a remarkable job considering he has little understanding of the language. In his afterword, he talks about how it became a joint project with his wife as she translated the materials so he could use them. Their work together created a great book, but I couldn’t help but compare it.
Despite some issues, mostly personal, I enjoyed this book and finished it quickly. I’m tempted to find some other true crime books like this and give them a try.
Images taken from Levingston's pinterest page: here.