Capacious study of some nefarious Parisians during the years before World War I, incongruously framed by the tale of Mona Lisa’s famed disappearance in 1911.
Co-authors Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler (Seven Paths to Death, 2008, etc.) spotlight the City of Light’s darker elements, from public perversions and private infidelities to thievery, rape and murder. They juxtapose a host of seedy characters against a Who’s Who of European modernism. The budding careers of Debussy, Satie, Apollinaire, Proust and Picasso provide a high-art context for some of the most sensational criminal cases of early 20th-century France. Marguerite Steinheil, already notorious as the mistress of French President Faurel, was accused of murdering her husband and mother in order to marry yet another lover. A hideously decomposed corpse discovered in the woods outside Paris was eventually linked through the new science of forensics to a reeking trunk found nearby, and through that to a prostitute and her accomplice in a badger-game scam. A serial killer who admitted to vampirism and a tailor who murdered a friend for money, chopped him up and distributed the body parts in neighborhoods across Paris are among the other unsavory individuals profiled. Though the authors strive to anchor these stories in a narrative of Mona Lisa’s theft from the Louvre, returning to that altogether dissimilar case every few chapters, the notorious art crime is more comprehensively reexamined in R.A. Scotti’s Vanished Smile (2009). A more fitting narrative armature for the Hooblers’ parade of gruesomeness would have been their well-explicated sections on criminological innovations of the time. Chapters such as “Science vs. Crime” and “The Man Who Measured People” are gripping, satisfying and edifying.
The egregious misdeeds and their scientific detection are extraordinarily absorbing; the stolen painting belongs in another book.