A Too, Too Simple Coupling by G. S. Johnston

Posted by on Oct 5, 2015 in 19th Century France, Featured Book, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 4 comments

The-Cast-of-a-Hand185x280In June 2000, a rough draft of the human genome was published, a map of all human genes. Although still two years to completion, this draft was a milestone. In the dying days of his administration, President Clinton declared;

“Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.”

At the time I was in awe, as I still am now, at the height of this collaborative achievement. In my lifetime humanity had pranced on the moon, but we’d also unpicked the very fiber of our being. But in true tabloid style, in June 2000, the tabloids were far more interested in a smear of Bill’s DNA on a little, black-print frock.

This momentous event went almost unnoticed, despite the fact it would inform so much of popular culture’s reckoning. Like Sartre urged the post World War II generations to be our existential selves, that we owed it to ourselves to make ourselves happy, the human genome project released us of responsibility – Baby, I was born this way.

Like most great achievements, it came with side-effects. In the years that followed, the tabloids did howl – the gene for diabetes, the gene for breast cancer, the gene for homosexuality, the gene for psychopathy – all these had been isolated. I felt a swell of regret – how quickly we were prepared to shuffle responsibility on to a single thing as it heralded a quick, easy solution. And how quickly we were prepared to reduce something as complex as human sexuality to one small collection of nucleotides. Our great achievement of mapping the genome reduced us to a child’s first equation 1 + 1 = 2.

I recently said to my analyst that when I start to write serendipity intervenes. Maybe it’s the muse slinging things my way but I suspect it’s more that once I start thinking about something, my antennae are up and news reports, radio (someone still loves you!) interviews, books and life in general rise up from the dross of daily living and slap me in the face.


Kinck Family

Whilst I was researching another novel, I found a book, In the Theater of Criminal Justice, on the “theater” of the new extension to the law courts of Paris, the Palais de Justice, built as part of Napoleon III and Haussmann refurbishment in the mid-1800s. The first case to be held in the courts was a young man, Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, accused of murdering Hortense Kinck and five of her children on a field on the outskirts of Paris in 1869.


Monsieur Antoine Claude

The subsequent investigation was led by the famous Paris Chief of Police, Monsieur Antoine Claude. The horrific details sent Paris reeling, the newspapers reaching a new level of frenzy, cited as birthing modern tabloid journalism. The case is also often cited as the first thunderclap in the fall of Napoleon III’s Second Empire.

The book contained a photo of the cast of the young man’s overly-large hand. So particular was the hand, it was argued in court that his over-sized hands had allowed him to strangle two children at one time, thus allowing the murders to take place in the described manner and allotted time.

Aldolphe Desbarolles

Interest piqued, I found the cast had been made by Aldolphe Desbarolles, a chiromancer or palmist who had lived and worked in Paris in 1860s and 70s. Desbarolles claimed to link various aspects of a person’s personality and disposition to the lines on and shape of their hand. Of course this “art” has a long standing tradition, dating way back in Jewish mythology.

But amongst these modern genetic assertions of the human genome, it seems an interesting point – that the features of a hand, arguably an expression of underlying genetics, expressed truisms of personality. Whilst Desbarolles’ claims seem extreme and the stuff of sideshow entertainment, how were his claims differing from these close and uncomfortable connections made between the tabloids announcing the discovery of a single gene for homosexuality or psychopathy?

DSC01698-3So the first pairings of a novel came together. Was Troppmann made by genetics or sculpted by the society he lived in? Troppmann grew up in the small village of Cernay, Alsace, close to the French Prussian border. His father had been cheated in a business deal which led to his bankruptcy. The family had had a difficult time but more from the shadow of this perceived injustice than down-at-heel poverty. At 19, he met the Kinck family. He had a chip on his shoulder but was this enough to kill? Or was his psychopathy, or at the least sociopathy, predestined and held in his hand?

Like Monsieur Claude, with more research I became less and less convinced the case could be reduced to a simple statement that Troppmann murdered the family. As these complexities became apparent, it too became apparent that this simple paring of gene to effect was a too, too simple coupling. But the complex ecology of epigenetics seems out of the hand of modern tabloids and perhaps unimaginable to Monsieur Claude and Monsieur Desbarolles in France’s Second Empire.

G. S. Johnston, October 5, 2015

The Cast of a Hand is now available on Kindle.


  1. I think I need to read this book. Recently I have become interested in the reign of Napoleon III, as a result of my interest in California history. (Look up “the gold ingot lottery.”) History is not a single thread, but is more like a knitted blanket. Pull any end and you are likely to unravel the entire piece. Napoleon III was a contradictory entity, a scam artist and benevolent dictator who did much to bring France to the modern era, but who ultimately failed in his grand ambition. To change metaphors, history is like a strand of DNA. Looking at its origins, we can better understand how we turned out.

    • The Napoleon III’s Second Empire is a fascinating time. It is so “modern”. He did do so much for the country but by the time this case occurred, there was considerable unrest. And he was unwell, aged and had no viable heir, the credit with which he’d driven everything was drying up. Even the American Civil War had dried up the supply of cotton which had impacts in manufacturing. As you say, all is interconnected. The “thunderclap” metaphor is very exact – when these murders happened, people really were bewildered that they had happened in their calm and just society.

  2. The interesting thing about one person’s DNA is that genes can be influenced by lifestyle and envinroment to determine how these individual genes react. For instance, two women with the same gene that indicates they are at a high risk for the same type of breast cancer does not mean they will both have the same risk factor, because lifestyle and environment also has to be factored in.

    In addition, a man with the gene that indicates he is a psychopath doesn’t mean he will go out and be a serial killer or a criminal—but he might be difficult to live with because he doesn’t have the ability to feel empathy for anyone else or feel remorse if he hurts someones feelings.

    The latest discovery is the bacteria that lives on our skin. Recent research indicates that this bacteria is as unique for each individual as a retina scan, finger prints and DNA. Now crime scene investigators are starting to swab sites to collect that bacteria as evidence that might lead to the alleged criminal.

    So today, a criminal can be caught and convicted from his finger prints, her DNA, and even the bacteria that lives on his skin.

    • Hi Lloyd, yes, epigenetics is the key, the interaction of everything. My novel ends with Claude’s wife saying.

      “Neither you nor Desbarolles are right or wrong. There’s some far more subtle interaction, some interplay. We’re born and we inherit things. But the world acts on us, the sunlight, the food we eat, the kind or awful words we hear, uncovering perhaps even covering these facts of birth.” She sighed. “We are who we are by a complex interplay, an unknowable dance of forces.”
      Claude moved his face in and out of the stream of pleasing light, then took her hand. He kissed the palm. She knitted his hand to hers. They dovetailed perfectly.