Fresh Meat: Trials of Passion by Lisa Appignanesi

Trials of Passion by Lisa Appignanesi is a dramatic narrative that details historically significant and famous crimes committed in the name of love and madness (available July 15, 2015).

Simpson, Anthony, Knox, Arias. This book is not about them, but it is. While it dissects four notorious murder trials, it’s not exactly a true crime book, but a deeper examination of the role that love and “insanity” and media have played in the way history’s sensational trials turned out.

The Simpson murder trial was called “the Trial of the Century” and it spawned Court TV, which morphed into TruTV, and it also introduced legal analyst Harvey Levin (co-founder of the site to a wider audience. The media-murder connection is now so strong that it almost feels like a citizen should be able to fulfill his/her jury duty requirement by putting in a few hours in front of a television.

But not just any murder trial becomes a media sensation (some would say “circus”). Some trials are just plain sexier than others—literally. Would anyone outside of Mesa, Arizona have cared who killed salesman Travis Alexander if the woman convicted of his murder hadn’t stabbed him multiple (27-29) times, shot him in the head, and then slit his throat? But by the end of the penalty phase (Arias was sentenced to life in prison), anyone who watched the trial had an opinion about her guilt. Was she mad (in the sense of being insane) or was she simply bad? Trial watchers were not just viewers, they were participants. They were invested in the outcome.

That sense of personal participation in a murder trial is not new. And that interest—call it simple curiosity or call it prurient—is in large part, what this book is about. And to make her points, author Lisa Appignanesi has chosen four murder trials that were as notorious in their day as the ones we all know by name.

This book journeys into the heart of dark passion, feminine and masculine, the crimes they impel, and their trial by daylight and doctors in the courts of justice and in the larger public arena of the press between 1870, the year of the first case, and 1914, when war changed so much. It also charts a power struggle that continues today between the law’s definition of insanity and the more complex understandings of the human that the mind specialists promulgate. Where does justice lie?

Appignanesi digs deeply into this marriage of mayhem and the media and in one case she chronicles, the murder of Gaston Calmette in 1914. The victim is himself a respected member of the media, the editor of France’s daily paper Le Figaro. His crime? He’d published a fourteen-year-old letter sent by Joseph Caillaux, the Minister of Finance, to his then-mistress. (She was married at the time but divorced her husband to become Caillaux’s first wife.) The second Madame Caillaux was horrified at the exposure.

Purchasing a Browning automatic from a gun shop in central Paris, Henriette Caillaux then wrote a note to her husband before having their chauffeur deliver her to Le Figaro’s offices and demanding to see the editor. It wasn’t so much the publication of the letter that she objected to—although that had been embarrassing enough—but the paper had hinted that it was part of a series and Henriette feared that her own sexual secrets might come to light. The editor had been attacking M. Caillaux for years, branding him pro-German and printing other libelous accusations, and when Henriette left her home on that fateful day, she left behind a note to her husband telling him that if the message was put into his hands, it would mean that she “has done, or attempted to do, justice.”

Later, after she’d pumped four bullets into the editor Calmette—who died on the operating table—she would insist that her chauffeur deliver her to the police station. Her case instantly became a causecélèbre, with papers lining up both for and against the minister and his wife. So, the press created two versions of the narrative—one in which Henriette was seen as a victim and one in which she was seen as une vrai femme, a real woman.

A real woman, it seemed, was one who honoured her domesticity, was moved by emotion, and had fragile nerves and a weak mind that could be overwhelmed by a tide of feelings and spontaneous impulses. Or was Henriette a cold, calculating divorceé, an unsexed and manipulative virago who, having already committed a crime against the family and thus the nation, had planned her act meticulously and murdered a good man in cold blood?

These two popularly opposed stereotypes of the feminine still too often play into a court’s fundamental—rather than evidential—female guilt and innocence.

Only one of the cases in this book was familiar to me—the murder trial of Harry K. Thaw, who killed architect Stanford White in the garden atop Madison Square Garden, a building he designed—which underscores one of the author’s points. We gravitate toward stories that we have a connection to, and, as Americans, we relate to stories that contain famous people, even famous buildings, and also (bonus) sex and jealousy. As with the other trials contained in these pages, the media shaped the story and, in a very concrete way, shaped the outcome of the case.

This is fascinating stuff with an intriguing feminist perspective on the topic. Anyone who enjoys legal thrillers with a psychological edge will open this book like a birthday present.

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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher ofDark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun HoneyA Twist of NoirLuna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir,Pulp Ink 2Alt-DeadAlt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.

Read all posts by Katherine Tomlinson for Criminal Element.

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