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Book Review: Violette Noziere: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris

Amongst the many ways murderers 'do away’ with their victims, poisoning must surely be one of the ghastliest of methods. Convulsions, vomiting, nausea, severe headache etc. – death by poisoning must be one of the slowest, most painful deaths imaginable. Hours, even days could elapse before the victim drew their last, tortured breath. What a way to go.

In days of yore arsenic and strychnine could be bought over the counter. Back then, before the advances in toxicology and post mortem practice, poison might not necessarily be detected or attributed as a cause of death. For the budding psychopath anxious to be rid of a lover, a rival or an annoyance, the appeal of poison as a weapon of choice seems obvious.

All of which musings bring me to Sarah Maza’s account of the Violette Noziere affair, a story of petite bourgeoise existence in an inter-war France of solid conservative values. The facts of the case are fairly straightforward: In 1933 this young, sexually promiscuous Parisian poisoned her mother and father. Monsieur Noziere died, his wife however survived. Violette admitted her guilt. An open and shut case? Not quite. Incest charges sent the case into an altogether different sphere of notoriety.

Like thousands of other upper working-class French families, the Nozieres aspired to higher things. It appears the couple pined their hopes on their only daughter, the pretty but somewhat unstable Violette. Indeed, in Maza’s account the young woman comes across as flighty, a fantasist adept at living separate lives: dutiful daughter and good time girl. According to the media she was determined to vivre sa vie (live her own life.)

Maza has certainly made good use of the archives at her disposal and by delving deep into the personalities of the three protagonists, is able to portray a suffocating family psychodrama. One of the most enduring aspects of the book are its images. Photographs of the Noziere’s modest apartment bring home the claustrophobia described in the text; aside from a tiny, grim kitchen, the Nozieres dwelt in two gloomy rooms – parent’s bedroom and a parlour which doubled up as Violette’s bedroom. (She slept in a temporary 'cot' - a woman in her late teens.)

The author delves into the social milieu with gusto and the reader learns quite a lot about the Paris of the 1930s. For some however, the socio-political context might at times slow the narrative down, fascinating as it appears. I’ve never read a true crime story in which the political right and left are invoked quite so much. At times, one could be reading a history text-book.

Such diversions occasionally feel like padding. For example, an in-depth discussion of the surrealist involvement with the affair goes on for several pages. As someone familiar with European cultural history, that’s fine. But it might not be to everybody’s taste. It’s at such times the text can’t help but betray its academic authorship. Let’s just say this ain’t no True Detective pot boiler. Rather it’s serious and analytical.

On the whole Maza treats the crime objectively even if she does tilt towards supporting the incest charge. Violette testified that her father had been abusing her for 6 years – a motive which was met with scorn at least initially. Did he, or didn’t he? Paris – the whole of France was shocked to the core by the nature of the crime. Off with her head! By citing media and public reaction Maza successfully captures the zeitgeist of the moment – often by quoting letters written by an outraged public.

It’s the presentation of Violette that leaves an abiding impression precisely because Maza is careful not to judge her subject. Despite the immense amount of research that clearly went into the book, its central protagonist ultimately remains an enigma. Why did she set out to murder doting parents? (She’d tried and failed once before) If the incest charge was true then why attempt to also murder a mother who adored a daughter for whom she had made many sacrifices?

The story of Violette Noziere story has long since been forgotten, but intra-generational conflict itself is timeless. Patricide and incest, the affair transgressed two of society’s great taboos which may further explain its enduring fascination. Indeed, this sordid tale of bourgeoise sensibilities has been adapted several times for the screen – most notably Chabrol’s 1978 version - testament to the enduring nature of events which rocked the foundations of ‘respectable’ society a century ago and which still has the capacity to resonate with the modern reader.