Sarah Maza


On her book Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris

Cover Interview of July 18, 2011

A close-up

A chapter that I hope readers will find as exciting to read as I did to write is entitled “Letters to the Judge.”

In the French criminal justice system, the initial investigation of a case is carried out entirely by the juge d’instruction (investigating magistrate), who therefore has great power to shape the story.  In this case, people from all over France wrote letters to Judge Edmond Lanoire, either to give him tips or to share their views of the case and try to influence him.

These letters are a really unique source of information on attitudes towards this case and larger matters of sex, family, education and other things among ordinary French people at the time.  Men and women wrote to the judge to give their opinion of Violette (cold-hearted spoiled child or victim?), her parents (were they to be pitied, or somehow blamed?), and especially her explosive charge of incest.

Several of the most extraordinary letters came from women who were themselves victims of paternal incest.  They begged the judge to believe Violette, and in doing so told the stories of their own lives.  One of the letters is barely literate, written by a woman from a peasant family in pencil on a sheet of wrapping paper.  In other parts of the book I address the question of whether Violette’s claims about her father were likely true.  But in this chapter I dwell on how society at the time dealt with this “unspeakable” matter.

Incest was the central mystery in the case, but not the only one.  After Violette committed her crime it was widely assumed that her motive was money: her parents had carefully saved up a lot of money which she was set to inherit if they “committed suicide.”

Violette countered that she did not need money because she had a “protector,” a sixty-year-old gentleman who for a few months had been taking her out to restaurants and shows and giving her money—though he did not, she said, ask for sex in return.  She knew him as Monsieur Émile and gave the police precise details about his car, his appearance, and where he said he lived.  The police never found him, though many clues suggest he did exist; they may not have tried very hard because he was a person of some importance whose privacy needed to be protected.

Parisians were obsessed with Monsieur Émile, and many letters that came in to the judge were tips about his possible identity and whereabouts.  A persistent rumor began to circulate that this Émile was Violette’s biological father.  In that case, was she still guilty of parricide, and was the incest, if it happened really incest?  These are the sorts of issues that people pored over in their letters, hashed out in cafés, stores, and with their neighbors.

I end the book with the surprising stories of what happened to all the main characters during and after Violette’s trials.  I believe that the power of this case came from the fact that despite judicial resolution it was never really settled in people’s minds.