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ODU's Finley-Croswhite is Author of Historical Murder Mystery

Finley-Croswhite (left) with co-author Brunelle

Annette Finley-Croswhite of the Old Dominion University faculty has written an enthralling historical study of an unsolved murder that took place in 1937 on the Paris metro subway.

The politically charged story uncovered by Finley-Croswhite and co-author Gayle Brunelle is summarized in an article in the January issue of the prestigious London-based magazine History Today. The author's book about the murder mystery will be published later this year.

Finley-Croswhite is a professor of history and chair of the ODU Department of History. Brunelle is a professor of history at California State University at Fullerton.

Laetitia Toureaux, an Italian immigrant who was the first person ever killed in the Paris metro, is the central character of the authors' historical study. "She was a fascinating woman whose life reflected many of the complexities of inter-war France," Finley-Croswhite said in an interview.

History Today notes in its introduction to "Murder on the Metro" that in the years leading up to World War II, "France was riven by political division as extremes of left and right vied for power." The authors, according to the magazine, "tell the tragic and mysterious story of … a young woman swept up in the violent passions of the time."

Toureaux was a factory worker and young widow who loved to frequent music halls in some of Paris' shabbier neighborhoods. Calling herself "Yolande," she also worked as a private detective for the Agence Rouff as well as for the Paris Police and the Italians.

"As something of a triple-agent, Yolande infiltrated a far-right terrorist organization, the Comité Secret d'Action Révolutionnaire, which went by the popular name of the Cagoule, and she took their gun-running expert as her lover," the ODU professor said.

Finley-Croswhite and Brunelle researched mountains of archival sources as well as newspaper clippings and other records from the 1930s and 1940s in order to reconstruct the untold story of why someone stabbed Toureaux in the neck on the Paris metro and why the Paris police shelved the investigation and left the case unsolved to this day. They build a convincing case for her having known too much about the plans of French and Italian fascists, and for the inevitable suppression of the murder investigation by men who would become post-war leaders of France, including the late President Francois Mitterrand and executives of the international cosmetics company, L'Oréal. L'Oréal's founder, Eugène Schueller, bankrolled the Cagoule before the war and offered many of its most notorious leaders lucrative careers in the company after the war.

"The story of Laetitia Toureaux is both timely and compelling," the authors write in the magazine article. "A 500-page summary of the investigation compiled by the police a few months after her death paints a picture of one woman's struggle to achieve bourgeois respectability in a world that denied upward mobility to people of her sex, class and ethnicity. Her murder is also intertwined with the history of French fascism. The Cagoule leaders were not street thugs but highly educated extreme nationalists who used terrorism as a means of sending a message to the French public."

The authors call for a "reassessment of the Cagoule (that) will enhance our understanding of France's fall in 1940." They are the first scholars to explore this organization as an actual terrorist group that blew up a building in Paris on September 11, 1937, and planned a coup d'état. "The Cagoule also were involved in arms smuggling, sabotage, political intrigue, assassinations, bombings, and they directed violence toward noncombatants, although their targets were specific rather than indiscriminate, at least during the period, 1936-37," said Finley-Croswhite.

"Murder on the Metro" can be found online this month at www.historytoday.com. The authors' book, "Murder in the Metro: Laetitia Toureaux and the Cagoule in 1930s France," will be published in May by Louisiana State University Press.

For Finley-Croswhite, the publication of the article in a popular European magazine, and of the book within a few months, caps a 12-year saga that began in 1997 with her reading a few sentences in a Paris travel guide about an unsolved murder in the city's subway 60 years earlier. It ended last summer, Finley-Croswhite said, when she and Brunelle were able to interview the son of Toureaux's Cagoulard lover, who was born long after the war and is now the head of the largest newspaper conglomerate in France.

Finley-Croswhite and Brunelle specialize in 16th-century French history, but the two women who became friends when both were graduate students at Emory University decided to delve into this modern mystery. Several years ago, in the ODU magazine Quest, they wrote, "In 1997 we set out to find Toureaux's grave. There in the stillness of a cemetery on the outskirts of Paris, we vowed to this woman to tell her story. Laetitia "Yolande" Toureaux was no heroine, but she embodied many of the complexities of interwar French society. …In some sense, we believe, the publication of our book will reanimate and validate her existence."

In the interview, Finley-Croswhite added, "As historians Gayle and I really got drawn into this woman's story and thought others would be too. Toureaux actually kept me up at night. Sometimes I couldn't sleep for thinking about her and the significance of her life. We dedicated the book to the memory of Yolande, who took us on a splendid and completely unexpected adventure through the streets and back alleys of 1930s France."

This article was posted on: January 14, 2010

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