All articles are written by YJDP Student Correspondents and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
“Paris floats on a champagne bubble. Everything here, you realize, is on a grand scale...It’s magic; It’s exhilarating,” began Steven Levingston at a reading at the Washington Post Book Club on March 20th. He asked the audience to imagine being alive in Paris in the 1880s, an era simultaneously magical and macabre, and the setting of his new book, “Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Époque Paris.”
The book is a riveting nonfiction account of a sensational murder that captivated Belle Époque France and raised frightening possibilities of the power of hypnotism. In 1889, con man Michel Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard, his troubled mistress and the archetype of a femme fatale, planned and executed the killing of wealthy bailiff Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé. The investigation and case that followed spurred a public frenzy, illustrating 19th-century Parisians’ morbid fascination with all things grotesque and extraordinary. And indeed it is an extraordinary case--Bompard became a celebrity, Eyraud was hunted through three countries, and it was the first case in which hypnosis was used as a defense for murder, after Bompard claimed to have acted under Eyraud’s hypnotic spell. The book is just as exciting and enthralling as the era it describes – fast-paced, with rich details and vibrant characters, such as the mysterious and guileful Bompard.
However, the book is not only relevant to the history of the era it chronicles; it also has parallels in contemporary society. Bompard was one of the first celebrity criminals, as sensationalized press coverage of the case effectively made her a part of Belle Époque popular culture. Levingston compared her to modern celebrity criminals like O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony.
“In the way that she was treated and the way that she responded to this sensationalism, she set up what would be echoed,” Levingston said.
And that over a century later, the public still feeds the media’s obsession with criminals. “I’m looking to have [the story] reveal something about the world we live in,” Levingston said.
Levingston began writing at an early age. He describes himself as the quiet, observant member of a noisy family, a boy who preferred to write rather than speak while growing up. He first became fascinated by the Belle Époque as a teenager, when he encountered a story about a man who “sung from his behind” in the 1880s in Paris. He left this fascination behind for years to work as an international journalist for the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and China Daily, before becoming a finance editor at the Post.
He changed gears when he became the nonfiction book editor for the Post five years ago. “I was very lucky to get the job,” he said, since it allowed him to combine his skills with his love of books, writing, and nonfiction. His editorial role influenced his own nonfiction writing by showing him the importance of originality.
Around 2006, Levingston’s long fascination with the Belle Époque compelled him to look for an original story from that era to write about. After an idea to write about the singing man he had discovered as a teenager fell flat, he stumbled upon an academic article about the Gouffé murder, which immediately interested him. “I felt that there was a really good story there. The more I read, the more the thing came to life,” said Levingston. “Any story lives by its detail. The story had such rich moments that I couldn’t really not do it.”
“Little Demon in the City of Light”is the culmination of eight years of research and multiple rewrites. Levingston first tried writing an academic book, then a one-woman play starring Bompard in order to “see all the drama in her, and also to try to find her psychology.” He then began transforming the book into the narrative form it is today. There was a plethora of documentation and information about the case, and he explained that deciding what to leave out and differentiating fact from fiction in the sensationalized 1880s press coverage of the case was a complicated process.
When asked by a Post book club member whether he was ever tempted to turn the book into a novel, Levingston replied, “I thought about that a lot, but I always discounted it because I’m a journalist and I wanted to stick to the facts as much as is humanly possible.” He explained that part of what drew him to nonfiction is the messiness of reality, which is fun to write about.
“I’m always looking for good stories,” Levingston said. “What stands out is that story that seems unique, so that’s always what I’ve looked for and wanted to write.”
“Little Demon in the City of Light”is exactly that.