The title of Steven Levingston’s new book has a quaintly sensational ring to it; this could be a Pathé Newsreel headline, intoned over a jolly accordion soundtrack. And Levingston’s writing, at its most exuberant, echoes that style. It has an old-fashioned gusto that verges on gee-whizzery. Paris in the 1880s was “an urban carnival . . . [that] floated on a champagne bubble”; Parisians were “actors, dressed for show and behaving outrageously”; Marseille was “full of mystery and surprise, populated by tough and tanned natives”; while San Francisco was the “outlaw kingdom on the bay.” We learn that France’s chief prosecutor was “a legal lion and man of letters.” We anticipate rumbling carriages and ruined women and are not disappointed. But Levingston, the nonfiction book editor of The Washington Post, provides substance beneath the froth in his investigation of a crime that became a philosophical and scientific cause célèbre.

The bare facts of the murder in question are more sordid than lurid. On the evening of July 26, 1889, Augustin Gouffé, a prosperous businessman and gadabout, bump­ed into Michel Eyraud, an unsavory acquaintance. Gouffé was delighted to hear that Eyraud’s young girlfriend, Gabrielle Bompard, had left Eyraud and that she would welcome Gouffé at her apartment later that evening. Gouffé had barely settled into the assignation, however, when he was strangled in mid-seduction by Eyraud.

The conspirators emptied Gouffé’s pockets, jammed his body into a trunk, loaded it into a coach and fled Paris for the countryside. An innkeeper who moved the trunk, Levingston writes, “felt the contents shift inside; the sticky, wine-coloured substance oozing from the bottom . . . he assumed, was just paint.” In early August, Gouffé’s corpse was discovered at the foot of an embankment south of Lyon. The smell had filled the air for weeks. The body was decomposed, and the autopsy conducted by an inexperienced medical examiner ensured that it would be months before a link was made with the missing Gouffé.

Levingston describes the crime and its immediate aftermath with admirable restraint and with a keen eye for details that evoke a squalid apartment and complex characters. Marie-François Goron, chief of the Paris Sûreté, was a “stout bundle of energy” whose hair was “ ‘tawny colored,’ as his schoolmate, the novelist Émile Gautier, put it, and ‘cropped like a rat.’ ” A detective of formidable intellect, tenacity and instinct, Goron doggedly pursued the clues connecting the Paris murder scene to the decomposing corpse outside Lyon and then to the killers, who initially escaped to the United States.

On Jan. 22, 1890, Bompard turned herself in at the Paris prefecture, protesting her innocence. Prone to fainting fits and bouts of hysteria, she insisted that Eyraud had forced her to act as his accomplice by hypnotizing her and enslaving her will. This innovative defense turned her trial into a symposium on the power of hypnosis and the nature of criminal culpability.

"Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris" by Steven Levingston (Doubleday)

Levingston not only explains but also animates the debate raging at the time between scientists based in Nancy, France, who argued that “nearly anyone could be placed into a hypnotic state through the power of suggestion” and those in Paris who maintained that “hypnosis was a form of neurosis and [that] hysterics were the most susceptible to hypnosis.”

In lively scenes from the 1889 Congress of Experimental and Therapeutic Hypnotism and from Bompard’s trial, at which expert witnesses from each scientific camp testified, Levingston vividly conveys both the passion and the pomposity of learned men.

On the brink of a new century, some of the arguments presented now seem darkly prescient. “If, as [one expert] contended, hypnotists can turn anyone into an automaton, then a cunning devil could put an entire society under his spell,” an opponent from the Paris school argued. “A political adventurer could stir up mass unrest.” (Levingston reminds us that just months before, a charismatic general had launched an abortive military coup in Paris.)

While Paris — along with the European and American press — was captivated by the Bompard trial, the hunt continued for Eyraud, who was arrested in May 1890 in Cuba. His presence in the Paris courtroom further inflamed the rowdy audience and dueling lawyers. “In the dock, Gabrielle watched the hullabaloo, laughing” as Eyraud “sat motionless, dark-eyed and smoldering.” The guillotine was ready for one or both, and the book moves toward the conclusion of an engaging — and finally chilling — portrait of an uneasy era and a city of more shadow than light.

Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.


A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris

By Steven Levingston

Doubleday. 333 pp. $26.95