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Posts Tagged ‘crime’

The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.

Jacques_Mesrine

Mesrine’s mugshot, 1973.

On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.

For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.

This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later. Read More »

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The Well on Spring Street

September 15, 2014 | by

America’s first great murder trial, and the mark it left on New York.

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Archibald Robertson, Collect Pond–Bayard Mount, NYC, 1798.

Detested pit, may other times agree
With swelling mounds of earth to cover thee,
And hide the place, in whose obscure retreat
Some miscreant made his base design complete.

Thus, with oblivion’s wings to cover o’er
The spot which memory should preserve no more.

—Philip Freneau, A Collection of Poems, on American Affairs and a Variety of Other Subjects, 1815

On an unreasonably lovely August afternoon in SoHo—on Spring Street, to be precise, near where it meets Greene—I peered into the windows of a closed store, trying to see a way into what once might’ve been an alley. I was looking for a well that once captured the attention of the entire city: it was the scene of a murder most foul, a murder that pulled eighteenth-century New Yorkers into the bright, modern, terrifying future.

Gulielma Sands and Levi Weeks were planning to elope on the night of December 22, 1799. They lived in separate rooms at 208 Greenwich Street, a boarding house. Elma was going to sneak out and meet Levi somewhere private—this, at least, is what she told another resident at the house before she disappeared.

On January 2, two days into the new century, Elma’s body was found at the bottom of the Manhattan Well. The well took water from beneath Lispenard Meadow, the same water that filled the Collect Pond—a source of concern to New Yorkers, who associated standing water with disease. The meadow was a suburban respite from the crowded streets’ hustle and bustle of what we now call Tribeca: of the city but not really part of it. It was perfect for late-night sleigh rides, and sure enough, people living nearly half a mile away claimed to have seen Elma in a sleigh, between two men, on the night of the twenty-second. A week later, others noticed what looked like a lady’s muff floating near the top of the water. Read More »

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The Faint, Gray Areas

August 23, 2013 | by

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“‘It’s not black and white,’ a young doctor from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles had told me, in 1982, about the divide between life and death.”
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

I had been avoiding the research, the further reading, about my father’s death. After discovering that the Detroit Police kept appealing the lawsuit, trying to pin the “accident” on the fourteen-year-old they were chasing before he crashed into my father’s car, I became depressed, and stopped digging. This was two days before Detroit declared bankruptcy. Before I heard about a man, Dwayne Provience, who was suing the city of Detroit for “accidentally” convicting him of a crime he did not commit. Now the city was bankrupt and his lawsuit was frozen, like the nine years of his life spent in prison. Provience’s lawsuit is for police misconduct, similar to the one that my mother filed after my father’s “accident,” but that was the late nineties. Provience said he wanted to use the potential money to pay off the child-support debt that had accumulated during his time away and to help pay for his children’s education. The insurance cities rely on in incidents like this, “accidents” like this, is exactly what allowed me to afford college. Read More »

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Kleist’s Crime Blotter

January 8, 2013 | by

On the afternoon of October 1, 1810, people started gathering in front of Berlin’s Hedwigskirche, where a new paper would be selling its first issue. By evening the crowd had grown so large that guards were posted to maintain order. The whole city, it seemed, had turned out for the launch of the paper, the Berliner Abendblätter. Even the king had asked for a copy.

Officially, the Abendblätter was edited anonymously. Among the city’s literary elite, however, it was widely known that the paper was written almost single-handedly by Heinrich von Kleist, a young writer. Kleist’s plays and novellas were written with exceptional elegance, but were preoccupied with rape, war, and natural disaster. Kleist had once enjoyed the patronage of Goethe, but after a disastrous theatrical collaboration the two writers found it impossible to continue working together. Goethe admitted that his protégé filled him with revulsion and horror, “as though a body nature had intended to be beautiful were afflicted with an incurable disease.”

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A Crime Writer Turns to Crime, and Other News

November 9, 2012 | by

  • A Texas crime writer has been sentenced to thirty years for paying to have her husband murdered.
  • Ten things you may not have known about the Brothers Grimm.
  • Is horror a genre beyond redemption? Or, as The Guardian puts it, damned to literary hell?
  • “Don't worry about growing up,” and other advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter.
  • Behold: the bibliochaise.
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    Reading Dogs, Biblical Judges, Myers-Briggs

    July 9, 2012 | by

  • Dogs reading books.
  • Continuing the judicial book-report trend, a South Carolina woman is granted a reduced sentence on the condition she read and report on the Book of Job. She’s on it.
  • Archival audio of a 1972 panel discussion from the 92nd St. Y titled “Women Writers: Has Anything Changed?” featuring Nora Ephron, Elizabeth Janeway, and Carolyn Kizer, moderated by Helen Vendler.
  • Batman dominates the best-seller list (as well as the future box office.)
  • Data: singular or plural? The debate rages on.
  • In case you ever wondered about Anne Shirley’s Myers-Briggs personality type.
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