From the moment it first hit the headlines in August 1933, the case of Violette Nozière captivated France, embodying the prevailing uneasiness regarding class, gender, and sexuality.
It was a damn good story, one whose details shifted with the passing weeks and months, and it was precisely this “troubling ambiguity” that so captured the nation’s attention. As Sarah Maza writes in her excellent new biography, Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris (University of California Press, 2011): “The controversy around Violette was constant and wrenching, yet never clearly burst into the open. It was disturbing in an entirely new way.”
The Nozière case came at a time when both French intellectuals and the masses were particularly enamored of crime culture, and it was rendered all the more beguiling by the fact that nobody knew who to root for: the father who abused his daughter, the daughter who killed him, and the mother who repudiated her in court. All of the protagonists, at one time or another, seemed incredibly sketch.
The Nozières were a typical lower middle class family in which something had gone horribly wrong and, as new information was revealed, sympathies shifted over and over again. Were Violette’s parents ambitious upstarts or representative of the upwardly mobile lower middle class? Had they lost control of their willful daughter or enabled her wildness by granting her excessive freedoms? Was Violette a horrible monster or the victim of sexual abuse?
Maza gorgeously weaves together social history, crime culture, gender theory, and thorough research to present the complexities of the crime. Simultaneously, she incorporates small details regarding everyday, inter-war Parisian life, which grounds both Violette and her crime in a concreteness that is often missing in history books.
She writes: “The story of a specific girl in a particular family matters because when social scientists use expressions like ‘geographic mobility,’ ‘growth of the service sector,’ or ‘democratic consolidation,’ there is a danger not just that we will put down what we are reading but, more importantly, that we will forget that these were experiences that affected the real lives of people in concrete and dramatic ways.”