- The Washington Times
Friday, July 23, 2010

By Gayle K. Brunelle and Annette Finley-Croswhite
Louisiana State University Press, $39.95
209 pages

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. Even more mysterious was the fact that came to light only slowly for the police investigating her murder and, later, for the two American professors curious about the story: Laetitia Toureaux had been involved with a secret right-wing terrorist organization called the Cagoule.

From the reaction of archivists to their request for files at the National Archives, Ms. Brunelle and Ms. Croswhite concluded that “we had stumbled onto a troubled story that many French men and women preferred to forget.” The history of the Cagoule was considered with the “collective amnesia” that had also obliterated memory of “all fascist leanings of the pre-war period” and collaboration with the Nazis.

Officially discredited as, in the professors’ words, a “gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” the Cagoule had, in fact, been a well organized and effective terrorist organization. It had pulled off bombings and political assassinations as part of an effort to destabilize the French popular front government and make way for a right-wing coup. After the war, the upper echelons of French society, business and government were full of men and women with ties to the Cagoule, including Francois Mitterrand, whose “personal history and family alliances help to explain why any discussion of the CSAR (the Cagoule) during his lifetime was officially taboo.”

Since his death 20 years ago, the veil has lifted some and the French have begun to more openly discuss the painful history of the country’s flirtation with fascism.

“Murder in the Metro” suffers from awkward structure, academic jargon and digressions that take the reader away from the main story. Toureaux gets lost, for example, in a long, repetitive discussion of how her portrayal in the French press at the time of her murder reflects changing views of women in the ‘30s and how consideration of “the question of identity” has moved “away from the postmodern disparagement of the concept of identity as anything more than a linguistic construction.” Still, this is a fascinating study of France and of a time when the struggle between left-wing and right-wing politics was more than just rancorous. It was deadly.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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