Crime and Flirtation with Fascism

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 23, 2010 | Go to article overview

Crime and Flirtation with Fascism


Byline: Stephanie Deutsch , SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The raucous, rancorous struggle between left and right in contemporary American political discourse and public life, alarming to some, is child's play compared with what went on in 1930s France. Like its neighbors Spain, Italy and Germany, France became a battleground during those years as ideologies competed for the soul of Europe. Succumbing to neither bloody civil war nor totalitarian takeover, France nonetheless experienced, in the years leading up to World War II, a period of extraordinary turmoil, violence and intrigue.

The social, cultural and political upheaval of this time is more than the background for the crime that is at the center of Murder in the Metro, a new book by history professors Gayle Brunelle (California State University at Fullerton) and Annette Finley-Croswhite (Old Dominion University). It is the book's real and extremely interesting subject.

Not that the murder in the metro is not fascinating in itself. On the sweltering evening of May 16, 1937, passengers boarding a first-class metro car at the Porte Doree station in Paris found it empty except for a woman seated at the far end facing away from them. As they looked around to see whether the windows could be opened and then settled into their seats, the woman slumped forward and slid to the floor.

The horrified passengers saw protruding from her neck the handle of a long knife buried to its hilt. The victim of this first-ever metro murder was Laetitia Toureaux, a beautiful 29-year-old immigrant from Italy. Happening upon this story in a Paris guidebook, the authors, American professors in France to research historical subjects from the 16th century, were curious. Who was Laetitia Toureaux, they wondered, and who had killed her?

The answer, it turned out, was vastly more complex than the spurned lover scenario immediately suspected by the Parisian police. Toureaux had been a factory worker, well-liked by her colleagues, a charming young woman who spent her evenings frequenting bals musette, popular halls where people went to drink, flirt and dance as the accordion played. She worked part time as a hat-check girl there and even, on occasion, as a paid dance partner circulating among the clientele. Despite the black she had worn since the death of her husband, a French worker, she was known to have amorous adventures.

But her murderer left no clues and had worked with a precision that spoke less of passion than of a professional hit. Further discoveries about the victim deepened the mystery. Madame Toureaux, it emerged, had worked for a detective agency checking addresses, following people, making reports and even, on occasion, informing the police of their activities. …

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