Our lovely and talented Femme Fatale is not feeling as well as she ought this week, and asked me to choose one of her former columns to run this week until she’s back on her feet. I’ve chosen this one from last year (August 19) because it’s one of my favorites and demonstrates how her devious brain (in complete contradistinction to her warm heart) operates. I’m sure the Gentle Reader will join me in wishing Deborah a speedy recovery!
SHOW ME A STORY
by Deborah Elliott-Upton
If one picture is worth a thousand words, how many pictures would one short story be worth?
I was thumbing through an art book and stumbled upon a painting by Jacques-Louis David, La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat), that had always fascinated me. When I was younger, I didn’t think of it so much as a crime scene, but in fact, that is exactly what David captured. The corpse, a letter in his hand from the assailant asking for an audience with him and the murder weapon, a knife on the floor, is displayed.
If I remember correctly, there was a witness and so no doubt as to who the murderer was, and therefore little to classify this sight as a mystery, but suppose we had written a short story concerning this crime scene? And for us, the short story lover, the game is afoot, my dear friends.
Consider our victim. Marat was a prominent doctor in 1770s London when he was appointed physician at the French court of Louis XVI’s brother, the Count d’Artois. Marat was known for his published scientific writings, but also as an author of inciting political pamphlets. Marat won many followers from the lower stations in France, but also made many enemies. See the conflict?
Our killer was a young woman who during the French Revolution was a Girondin supporter – enemy of Marat’s advocacies of an extensive social legislation programs. History tells us Charlotte Corday came to Marat’s Paris room and stabbed him while he soaked in his bath. The murder was certainly premeditated since she brought the weapon with her. She was rewarded by being sent to the guillotine and instead of making him go away, propelled Marat to become a martyr.
But what if there had been no witness? Or what if he himself were an accomplice? In studying the painting, would there be any clues not noticed by the police? It’s known Marat was ill with some sort of need for medicinal baths. It’s known that whatever condition he had was excruciating and the frequent and lengthy baths were the only method of relieving the pain. Could he have been in such torment that he took his own life in order to make the opposing side take the blame?
Was an innocent woman killed when she only wanted to plead with Marat to see the other side of the cause? Would a jury (had there been a trial) have convicted Corday, or could she have gotten off on grounds of reasonable doubt? Personally, I have no idea if the French courts at that time considered reasonable doubt, but I am sure someone reading this probably does, so, please leave a comment so we will all know.
Would much depend on a competent lawyer or an amateur sleuth or two? Or on courtroom prejudices? Of the young woman’s beauty or lack of it?
A painting of one man’s death by his close friend and skilled artist surely leads to a thousand words we could say about the work. I suggest one short story can just as surely lead to many pictures in our minds, turning like a carousel of memories long after the story has reached its end.