Little Demon in the City of Light

A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris

By Steven Levingston

Doubleday. 352 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Maureen McCarthy

Paris 1889. The city preened beneath its new Eiffel Tower as the world flocked to the Exposition Universelle.

Visitors were mesmerized, which was fitting, because the city was about to see the world's first test case of murder by hypnosis.

Little Demon in the City of Light tells the riveting story of two misfits who almost got away with murder. When they didn't, their trial became its own exposition, matching the latest breakthroughs in criminology with some of the greatest names of the age.

Steven Levingston's title nods to Erik Larson's bestselling The Devil in the White City, a gripping history that braids the tales of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the serial killer who preyed on the women of Chicago.

Little Demon focuses on a single murder case, but what a case it was. It unfolded at a time when forensic science was just beginning and hypnotism was in its heyday. Its characters could have come from fiction.

Enter Gabrielle Bompard, a pretty 21-year-old wild child whose family sends her off to Paris at a time when decent women did not travel alone. Before long she is in league with Michel Eyraud, a ne'er-do-well twice her age. Soon, a rich bailiff is dead, his body is missing, and so are they.

This is not a whodunit but a will-they-get-away-with-it.

At first it seems they will. The body isn't found for weeks and remains unidentified for months. How it gets identified in an age before fingerprinting is a story in itself.

With no suspect and amid hounding by the press, Chief Inspector Goron takes the extreme step of displaying the bloody trunk that the body was transported in. Parisians throng to see it, so many that vendors sell miniature trunks as souvenirs. Newspapers could not write enough about the spectacle.

The gambit works. The publicity reaches people who link Bompard and Eyraud to the trunk. Photos of Bompard and breathless news reports go international, and within a year the two are on trial. The guillotine awaits.

Her defense: He hypnotized her.

We might smirk now, but at that time the eminent Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot was conducting public hypnoses of "hysterical" women (as seen in the recent films Augustine and A Dangerous Method). Two competing schools were debating whether a hypnotized person could be made to do anything - even commit murder.

The furor builds as Paris prepares for the trial. Courtroom seats are sold by scalpers. Even famed writer Emile Zola weighs in, revealing that his sympathy for the accused does not extend to "la petite demon."

Levingston, nonfiction books editor for the Washington Post, said he originally wrote this as an academic story, but decided it was too compelling for that. He's right, and readers are well-served by his reimagining of this amazing true story.