Zoë Apostolides

Vanished without trace Zoë Apostolides

In the early 1900s, Henri Landru lured at least ten unsuspecting women to their deaths and later incinerated their bodies

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.

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