A history of capital punishment in France combined with a detailed description of the crime that led to that country’s final use of the death penalty.
Mercer (Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co., 2005, etc.) does a solid job with these parallel narratives, though overly descriptive passages sometimes drag down the pace. He clearly thinks capital punishment is barbaric and uses both stories to make that point. The history of France’s use of the death penalty is informative, and Mercer places past events in context while resisting the temptation to impose modern-day values on them. He also examines the conflicted views French leaders and citizens have voiced about the death penalty over the years. All the usual suspects make appearances, including executed French royals Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and the guillotine’s inventor, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. In the chapters on Hamida Djandoubi, the last person executed in France, Mercer supplies vivid descriptions of the crime and of its perpetrator’s sad, troubled life. Djandoubi tortured and murdered a former girlfriend, forcing two other women he had previously brutalized to watch. The author does not try to make excuses for these acts and dismisses the attempts by Djandoubi’s lawyers to use his difficult childhood or the effects of losing his leg in an accident as reasons for acquittal. Nevertheless, Mercer emphasizes the brutality of the September 1977 beheading: “The gush of blood. It was as if somebody had thrown a bucket of water against the wall…The head that fell and bounced in the basket. The crimson fountain that spurted from the arteries.”
A fast-paced, informative take on an important social issue and brutal crime, though Mercer lacks the storytelling panache of such narrative nonfiction masters as H.G. Bissinger and Erik Larson.