A famous “fait divers” in Paris, 1933

Early in the 20th century, France’s legendary literary publishing house, Gallimard, produced a weekly crime magazine, Détective. Its stories focused on what daily newspapers relegated to their fait divers or “miscellany” section, splashing across its pages sordid private crimes, freakish human deaths and bizarre accidents. Détective became an iconic crime magazine, a huge success. Its heyday was the only time this literary publishing house made serious profits, according to its owner, Gaston Gallimard.

Five years after the publication of its first issue in 1928, Détective covered the most sensational private crime of the French interwar years, that of Violette Nozière, an 18-year-old working-class girl who poisoned her parents on the night of August 21, 1933. Violette convinced her mother and father to drink a barbiturate-laced beverage for medicinal purposes, as prescribed by the family doctor. They believed the lie because Violette had been diagnosed with syphilis and the doctor, to protect Violette’s reputation, told her parents the disease could be inherited. Her parents passed out on a folding cot in the dining room. Violette left the two-room apartment on Rue de Madagascar to spend the rest of the night in a hotel. The next day, Violette shopped for stylish clothes she wore that night, out on the town. Her father died. Her mother survived.

The story about how this pretty teenager from a respectable family came to commit murder, as well as why the public obsessed over the crime, is the focus of Sarah Maza’s intriguing Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris. More than just a crime story, Maza’s fascinating investigation provides insight into the lives of middle- and working-class Parisians between the World Wars, whose good paying jobs and opportunities to better educate their children than ever before opened the door to elevating the social status of their future generations. 

Did Violette murder her parents so she could have the bank account they diligently saved for her education and dowry? Or did she do it simply to get away from her parent’s ambitious demands? Did her father sexually abuse her, as she claimed? Did she commit the murder alone or did her boyfriend assist? And did a mysterious wealthy man fund her expensive habits? The case was fraught with complex mysteries that consumed the public’s attention, more than Hitler’s activities in Germany.

A few times, when Maza delves into the political, social and cultural history of the time period — such as the crime culture in Paris, the opinionated and personal letters written to the presiding judge from the populace, and the sympathy of Surrealists — I felt delayed from being told what happened next in Violette’s case. Even so, the analysis remained fascinating, broadening my knowledge of Paris in the 1930s.

In the end, the trial’s events came as a surprise, as did learning the French justice system still held the guillotine as possible punishment. Be assured, I’m not giving anything away here, just indicating that what goes on in the trial lacks modern-day American procedures and rights, including the right of innocence until proven guilty. The verdict and Violette’s fate give pause for thought about fair trials and a criminal’s ability to transform.