Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Murder, mayhem and madness

Here's what I've been working my ass off for the last month to finish. I may never complete it though, since the journal I'm submitting it to has given giving me tons of leeway, which has only led to a great wasting of time...

Here's the intro. Enjoy.

Léa (on left) and Christine Papin before...

...and after the murders they committed. (Here Christine is on the left, Léa on the right.)

One of the most gruesome, bloody and violent murders of modern France is also one of the most written-about crimes of the twentieth century. The event known as l’affaire Papin refers to a crime which took place in February 1933 at the home of the Lancelin family in the provincial town of Le Mans, France. Christine and Léa Papin, two sisters who had worked as maids in the household for six years, killed the mother and the daughter of the family following an electrical outage caused by the iron Christine had been using. Apparently in reaction to Madame’s anger at the discovery of the blackout, the sisters jumped on their employers in a remarkably brutal attack: Christine and Léa ripped out the eyes of the other two women with their fingers, then beat them to death with a pitcher and hammer and sliced their faces and bodies with a kitchen knife. Found huddled together in a single bed behind the locked door of their attic bedroom after the crime, the sisters willingly went with authorities to be questioned at the police station.

Despite the abundance of facts around the case – Christine and Léa were able to give police a detailed account of the murders – there is no single all-encompassing narrative to explain the crime, primarily because of the sisters’ inability to elucidate any reason for the killing. Their lack of emotion and apparent confusion about why they killed has generated such numerous and varied explanations in the both factual and fictive accounts that it serves as a marker for a shift in what it means to solve a crime. Traditionally, this explanation consists of identifying and finding the criminal, bringing him before a judge, and punishing him for his act, the implication being that the crime is solved once the the murderer is contained. Deprived of any sense of finality in this particular case upon discovering the identity of the killers, journalists and other writers found it necessary to assign their own interpretation on the event, as murder is an event for which the public demands a clear, cohesive and rational explanation. Perhaps even more than the lack of motive was the somewhat ready-made quality of the sisters’ story. Faced with the elements of incest, eye-gouging, homosexuality, Oedipus, class relationships, mirroring, and the dualities of light and shadow (the electrical blackout) and Jekyll and Hyde (the two photographs of the sisters,) writers could hardly not write the narrative of this crime.

Speaking of the rise in crime literature in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ken Morrison states: “The work of detection within literary space was designed to show how murder was to be handled, how it would be investigated, and how it would be accounted for” (305.) This crime occurs at a moment in literary and cultural history where more than just the body of the criminal was required. Questions which had been broached in psychology in general and psychoanalysis in particular compelled the act of detection in another direction. Not only did it involve searching for physical clues, evidence and truths, but looking for deeper hidden truths about crime and the criminal. Morrison goes on to say “The presence of the investigator is predicated on the idea that the truth is hidden from view and that the investigative gaze alone will reveal this truth…The aim of detective fiction is to bring the murderer to justice by unraveling or disclosing the truth” (306.) By 1933, this ‘truth’ had changed. Whereas traditional crime writing focuses on finding the criminal, the question now is shifting from finding the person who committed the crime to seeking dark truths which lay in the heart of a killer. Who were the Papin sisters? How could two killers lurk beneath the calm domestic exterior of their starched maids’ uniforms? Does the blank slate provided by their crime inspire a “delirium of interpretation,” whereby writing the story is imperative to understanding something essential about the human soul?


Kenzie said...

Creeeeepy. Lol, good article though! It definently (sp) caught my attention. :)

tod said...

I love the Papin story. If it hadn't been made into several films already, I'd want to do it.

I like Denis' Murderous Maids, and Chabrol's La Cérémonie which while not the Papin story, is loosely based on the characters. And I've read that Genet meant for the sisters to be played by men in drag in The Maids.

If I were going to do it, I'd make it as tawdry as possible, and I'd portray the sisters as sociopathic time bombs.

I had no idea you were working on this, Julie. One of my favorite historical crimes!

Julie said...

It's a huge chunk of my dissertation, Tod. I love this story.

Les Bonnes was indeed inspired by them, and yes, they were to be played by men, but that was part of Genet's much theatre as possible.

MAKE A TAWDRY MOVIE!!! That hasn't actually been done yet. There can't be too many movies on the Papin sisters anyway.