- Little Gregory by Charles Penwarden
Fourth Estate, 247 pp, £13.99, August 1990, ISBN 1 872180 31 0
When one thinks of crime in France, one remembers those who are considered to be the great criminals, those who have met the guillotine, which has been called Le Goncourt des assassins. There is the infamous Landru. There is the anarchist Jules Bonnot and his gang, who cried Vive la mort when they were encircled by the Police. Eugène Weidemant, who used to shoot his victims in the back of the neck and then rob them of ludicrously small sums of money: his was the last public execution in France, in June 1939, due to the shock caused by his admirers, who had soaked their handkerchiefs in his blood and kept them proudly. Dr Pétiot, a former mayor of his commune, who wore a neat bow-tie and who despatched some thirty bodies from his cosy den in the Rue Le Sueur. Pierre Loutrel, known as Pierrot le Fou, who was liable to shoot at anybody and who eventually shot himself. These were the stars who strutted on the boulevards of crime. But, perhaps more typical of France are the mysterious, enclosed, claustrophobic crimes which have distinguished many small provincial regions. There was the murder of Sir Jack Drummond and his family, at Lurs, in the Basses-Alpes, which revealed, as in a Giono novel, the unusual lives of the Dominici family, le clan Dominici. There were the activities of Marie Besnard, la bonne dame de Loudun, who fed arsenic to some thirteen relatives (but whose guilt was cast in doubt when it was discovered that one of the scientific witnesses at her trial suffered from acute myopia). A young working-class girl was murdered in Bruay-en-Artois, and the local notaire was arrested for the crime. When he was released, for lack of evidence, most French people believed in his guilt because they knew how grandees behaved in a place like Bruay-en-Artois. A certain Madame Weber, la diabolique de Nancy, is to stand trial for two murders and for falsifying a marriage.
The affair of le petit Grégory is in this category of provincial, family crime. On 16 October 1984 Christine Villemin was working at the textile mill in the small town of Lépanges, in the Vosges department. She was a modestly paid seamstress. When she finished her work, shortly before five in the evening, she went by car to collect her four-year-old son Grégory, in a neighbouring council estate, where he normally went to play with a friend after school ended at 4.30. As usual, she then drove, with her son, to her house about a kilometre away, at Paremont. Once there, she allowed Grégory to play outside whilst she did some ironing and listened to the radio. She was unable to see her son because the shutters on the double-glazed windows were closed. At about 5.30 she went out to fetch him because it was time for his bath. But he was not there. She looked in the garden, she called on neighbours, she drove back to his friend on the housing estate at Lépanges, but he was not in any of these places.
At about the time that Christine Villemin discovered that her son was missing, her brother-in-law Michel, some twelve kilometres away, received a phone call. The anonymous caller announced that he had taken Grégory and put him in the River Vologne. Michel told this to his parents, who lived next door. They telephoned their local gendarmerie. Having learned about the anonymous phone message, Christine Villemin also contacted the Police. Three hours later Grégory’s body was recovered from the swollen river. The next morning an anonymous letter, bearing the postmark of Lépanges, was delivered to the Villemins’ house. ‘Not all your money can bring you back your son.’ It was addressed to Christine Villemin’s husband, Jean-Marie.
The general public learned about the killing of Grégory and at the same time learned about the existence of le clan Villemin, an extended family of about seventy individuals and many more relations, all living in the same region, and how they had been subjected to a plague of poison-pen letters and vicious anonymous phone calls. These had been occurring for some years, and had been investigated by the gendarmerie and by private detectives, but all to no avail. Their author, commonly known in French as Le Corbeau, the crow, remained unknown. But it was assumed that it must be a member of the Villemin clan, since it was rent with family quarrels, hatreds, jealousies and rumours. Jean-Marie Villemin, who had been more successful in his profession than most of the family (he was foreman in a car-accessory firm) and who liked to think of himself as the leader of the clan, was a favourite target.