A delicious true crime account of a murder most gallic—think CSI Paris meets Georges Simenon—whose lurid combination of sex, brutality, forensics, and hypnotism riveted first a nation and then the world.
In 1889, the gruesome murder of a lascivious court official at the hands of a ruthless con man and his pliant mistress launched the trial of the century. When Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé entered 3, rue Tronson du Coudray, expecting a delightful assignation with the comely Gabrielle Bompard, he was instead murdered by Gabrielle and her lover, Michel Eyraud. An international manhunt chased the infamous couple from Paris to America’s West Coast, culminating in a sensational trial that investigated the power of hypnosis to possess, control, and even kill. As the inquiry into the guilt or innocence of the woman the French tabloids dubbed the “Little Demon” intensified, the most respected minds in France vehemently debated: Was Gabrielle Bompard the pawn of her mesmerizing lover or simply a coldly calculating murderess capable of killing a man in cold blood?
The titular figure in this lively popular history is Gabrielle Bompard, a young woman who became infamous as the accomplice in a garish and notorious murder in 1889 Paris. Mistress of the con man Michel Eyraud, Bompard and her tragic story became a historical footnote; her case at trial rested on a precedent-setting hypnotism defense. In seeking to absolve her of responsibility, the reference to hypnotic suggestion (then an intensely researched subject in the medical community) brought into the spotlight opposing scientific camps, represented by Jules Li geois a law professor from Nancy who argued that the hypnotized criminal was not morally culpable and the eminent Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, onetime mentor of Freud, who insisted the hypnotist could not override an individual's moral makeup. Before reaching the spectacular trial, however, journalist Levingston (coauthor of The Whiz Kid of Wall Street's Investment Guide) spends the first two-thirds of the book meticulously recounting the crime, principal characters, and relevant cultural context. Though limited as a cultural history, the book is lovingly constructed from available sources, including newspapers, memoirs, and secondary histories, and immerses the reader in a period whose newfound obsessions science and pseudo-science of the mind, criminal forensics, mass media, the macabre, and fame have a seminal connection to our own time.
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This is an amusing and intriguing crime story in turn of the century France with memorable characters. True crime beats fiction generally and the Belle Époque historical context helps complete the picture. Toss-up between 3 & 4 stars...EAF