A real-life Bluebeard: on the track of France’s most notorious serial killer

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

From Colette to Rudyard Kipling, celebrities flocked for front-row seats at the 1921 trial of Henri Landru, the notorious ‘lonely hearts’ killer. By the time he was apprehended, France’s answer to Jack the Ripper had swindled his way to contact with almost 300 women, using a variety of aliases, and murdered ten of them at his country pied-à-terre outside Paris.

A century later, the suicide of Rey Rivera at the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore created no such sensation except in the minds of conspiracy theorists and those who missed him, but the two stories reveal more similarities than might be expected.

Trawling through 7,000 pages of archive material, Richard Tomlinson’s account spans many years, witness statements, forensic records and court documents. Charting the accused’s upbringing and dabbles in petty crime to the investigation and trial, it’s a comprehensive and well-structured book, filled with reported dialogue. The human drama plays out alongside portraits of Paris during and after Landru’s spree: the bombed streets, heartfelt notes sent via the underground whoosh of the pneumatique, the ‘curtain-raiser’ headlines of a national press wringing its hands in barely suppressed glee.

This was a man enabled, Tomlinson suggests, by the environment in which he operated, enjoying free rein in a war-torn capital ‘denuded of young men’, ‘at large in this city of male cripples, harvesting women’. After proposing, he’d take his fiancées 60km west to the village of Gambais on one-way train tickets. Anna, Andrée and Célestine, among several others, were never seen again: only mentioned in the cryptic notes of Landru’s creepy little carnet.

As with the best and most respectful true-crime narratives, the spotlight is kept on the victims — mostly house-keepers, cleaners, sex workers and seamstresses who responded enthusiastically to the dangling carrot of their murderer’s newspaper adverts, as well as the promise of escaping bombardment — and exposes a more systemic series of prejudices that have enormous contemporary resonance. The legal system suggested these were ‘foolish’ women, ‘vulnerable, feeble, loose’. Once they could no longer speak for themselves, Tomlinson describes how it fell to Célestine’s sleuthing younger sister to gather research on the so-called disparues.

A central question, ignored by police or lawyers seeking professional glory, addresses the fact that the majority of his quarries were not even worth fleecing from a financial perspective, and provides a depressingly enduring theory as to Landru’s real motivation. Those same misogynistic mechanisms that licensed Landru to withdraw life savings (because ‘men routinely looked after their womenfolks’ assets’) also allowed his victims to remain nameless — caricatured and jeered at after their deaths.

While it was near-impossible to track vanished people in turn-of-the-century Europe, this had clearly changed by 2006, when Mikita Brottman’s story begins. Rey Rivera was a 32-year-old freelance video editor: a handsome newlywed and one-time water-polo star who had everything to live for. He was found after eight agonising days in the disused former swimming pool of the Belvedere Hotel. He’d leapt 14 floors, crashing through the roof.

Brottman, an acclaimed true-crime author and psychoanalyst, has been captivated by the chequered past of the Belvedere since she bought one of its converted apartments. Still one of the city’s major landmarks, it once held all the glitz of a Gatsby party, boasting ‘gala dinners for 500, grand balls, fireworks, symphony performances, dancing girls, kangaroos’.

She recalls the days following Rey’s disappearance, and enters the room shortly after the body has been removed, surprised to discover a lack of police tape at the scene. The carpet, ‘stained almost black’, is ‘scattered with what looks like grains of rice, which, when I get down… turns out to be dried insect larvae’. We remember the missing posters included at the beginning, and are left contemplating how this broad-smiling man could be so transformed. She watches as Rey’s flip-flops are tossed down: no evidence bags, no photographs. ‘The second cop yells something at the first cop, who laughs and yells something back.’ There is a mirror here, 100 years earlier, of when police failed to secure the villa at Gambais after Landru’s arrest. The case, it seems, is closed.

It transpires that Rey had been unusually anxious, and was becoming interested in freemasonry. He was also working, unhappily, for a friend’s dubious sounding investment-advice newsletter: a company that refused all involvement. Gathering information, magpie-like, Brottman queries the assumption of suicide, and posits several alternatives.

The book develops into a meditation on life’s mysteries more generally, ‘the subtle shades and nuances of that which makes the flesh crawl’. Meandering sections stray into asides on mental collapse, the need to categorise events and ascribe meaning when often there is none. A few of these more personal, largely irrelevant reflections jar on occasion (‘Sometimes I wonder whether I am perfectly visible but people simply don’t like me’); but the interludes of case-study, local history and discussion of a specific tragedy within a wider context are fascinating digressions. The pressure on an already overworked Baltimore law enforcement parallels that of a diminished force in wartime Paris, but in both cases the thorny topic of responsibility — the quest for answers and motivation — emerges at the forefront.

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