Several months ago, when I was visiting home for a family event, I once again stayed in a Country Inns and Suites. And once again, I took advantage of their overly-trusting nature and stole a book from the bookshelf in their lobby. (Okay, technically it wasn’t stealing, since their policy clearly states that you can take a book and return it the next time you’re in one of their hotels, so if I’m ever in a Country Inns and Suites again, and if I happen to have this book with me, I will gladly return it. Sorry guys: I am the reason we can’t have nice things.)
As soon as I saw this, I knew I had to read it immediately. Paris? Crime? Belle Epoque? Detectives? Yes, yes, yes, and YES.
The book covers the period from the late 1880’s to the beginning of World War One in Paris, and focuses on several notable crimes (most notably, the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911) that were solved using then-revolutionary techniques, such as fingerprinting and mugshots, that would become the basis for modern criminology. The crimes include a bank robbing gang (who were the first criminals to employ getaway cars), several female murderers, and the infamous Mona Lisa theft. There’s a section on court procedure of the time, where the authors describe in detail the court case of a woman who was accused of murdering her husband and her mother and how the suspect’s gender influenced the ruling, and they include lots of good stories about the real-life detectives who were the basis for characters like August Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. My favorite was Alphonse Bertillon, whose idea to keep records of criminals’ features in order to identify them in the future is still referred to as “bertillonage”. He also basically invented the mugshot, and his requirements for police officers and detectives are fascinating in themselves – police officers had to be at least 5’10, in order to be intimidating, but detectives couldn’t be over 5’7, because they had to be inconspicuous. The book also discusses detective stories of the age and how the fictional criminals and detectives in these stories often reflected or even influenced real life cases.
It’s a really interesting study of the beginning of modern criminology, and the only thing that stopped me from giving this four stars is the structure of the book. The Mona Lisa theft is the big draw of the book, being the biggest criminal case of the era, resulting in a half-assed attempt to tie the other big cases featured to the theft. The book opens with the circumstances of the theft, then forgets it completely for several chapters as the authors focus on other (equally interesting) things like detectives of the time and criminal procedure. Then suddenly we’re back on the Mona Lisa case, and because Picasso and Apollinaire were briefly suspects in the case, the authors decide that they need to spend a long chapter explaining the history of the Impressionist and Surrealist art movements. It was weird and unnecessary, especially considering that Picasso and Apollinaire were suspects for like two days, and it stopped the book in its tracks. Then after that confusing section, we forget about the Mona Lisa case again so the authors can talk about something else for a while, and the book ends with the painting being found and an examination of the possible motives behind the theft.
The theft of the Mona Lisa is interesting, certainly, but the book suffers from the authors’ attempts to structure the entire subject around it. It would have been better if they had treated it like all the other cases in the book: devote a few chapters to the theft, the suspects, and the recovery of the painting (it could still be the longest section in the book, since it’s the big draw) and then move on to the other cases. They shouldn’t have tried to stretch the story of the theft over the entire book, since it just serves to confuse the reader and diminish the significance of the other cases featured.
Verdict: three out of five stars