The simplest story is the one which always has the best chance of being believed, usually it corresponds least to the facts.
I am writing the story of a murder in 1925 by peering over the shoulder of someone else. More specifically, I am peering over the shoulder of a shadowy figure named Monsieur G.
Monsieur G is a paradox.
While the other participants in this murder case write little, but won’t shut up, G says nothing to me, but writes everything.
I know little about his life, nothing about his opinions, and a great deal about his handwriting. G was the clerk that recorded the notes of the criminal investigation.
The French system of criminal justice is quite different to the system in America or the United Kingdom, where crimes are generally investigated by the police, and judged by an official who played no active role in the investigation. In France, justice is ‘inquisitorial’, because an ‘investigating’ or ‘examining judge’ rather the police on their own leads the investigation of serious crimes, such as murder. In the village of X where this case took place, the investigating judge was E. A. of the Court of First Instance in Strasbourg.
On the 14th April 1925, the very next day after the murder was committed, E.A. arrived in the village to begin his investigation, accompanied by Monsieur R., a translator, and the enigmatic Monsieur G.. Both functionaries swore to ‘fulfil their duties faithfully and well.’
They set themselves up in the town hall in X, and began by calling the man whose testimony was most important to the investigation: Monsieur J.
The ‘statement’ – known in French as a procès-verbal – which G., the court clerk, drew up based on this interrogation is the first of many similar statements, and follows a set pattern.
This is a piece of good luck for the historian, since the French archives do not keep transcripts of criminal court proceedings for this period. These statements are the best and only way to know how the case was decided, and what the villagers of X and the experts called in to judge technical questions said.
The first page is a standardized form, with blank spaces for the clerk to write in the date, the names of the officials, and the key details about the witness – or in this case, the accused, Monsieur J.:
Occupied as a rural constable, aged 48, living in X, at no.77 rue Beblenheim, born on 21st November in X, in the region of Strasbourg, in the département of the Bas Rhin, son of X and X, married on 19th November 1902 in X to E, having seven children and no criminal convictions.
In this crisp document, Monsieur J.’s life was reduced to these – mostly accurate – details.
But the judge and clerk did sometimes get things a bit wrong, especially when it came to official names, which could be confused by nicknames, and by differences between the Alsatian dialect names local people used, and how these names were written in French: the document mistakes the name of Monsieur J.’s wife, for instance.
These details matter in a village where the same first names and surnames appear repeatedly before your eyes in the documents.
The statement continues: Conscription cohort of 1896, subdivision [left blank].
There was no subdivision to write.When Monsieur J. was conscripted, it was into the German, not the French army, because he lived in part of the region that had been annexed to the newly-unified Germany in 1871, and only returned to France in 1919. This also explains why the form recorded no conscription lottery number.
After having established the identity of the accused, we informed him of the actions he is said to have committed, read him the statement, and informed him that he is accused, according to the terms of the public prosecutor of having willfully caused the death of S. on the 13th April 1925, or in any case less than ten years previously.
Moreover to have done this with premeditation or by means of an ambush
A crime defined and punished by article 295 and the following articles of the French Penal Code.
The statements that the judge E.A. collected over the following eight months all follow a similar pattern.
Rather than a record word-for-word of the questions put to the witness and their replies, the statements present a fiction of uninterrupted prose. Sometimes they almost read like a seamless narrative, while at others they show more clearly the disruptive influence of the questions the judge put to the witness.
For added drama, some of the statements include what the French system called ‘confrontations’. At the end of the questioning, other witnesses could be brought in to confront their accounts to that of the person being questioned, often leading to angry arguments, even between family members and allies in the village.
This conflict, confusion, and incoherence is glimpsed through the clerk Monsieur G.’s neat, clear handwriting. He is a ventriloquist for the words the villagers spoke, and this makes these words doubly translated: first from the Alsatian dialect that they spoke into French, and second into the permanence and coherence of a written account.
At the end of the questioning, the statement was read back to the witness or the accused. If they had anything to add, the clerk might write – as he did the first time Monsieur J. was questioned – After reading, the accused (or witness) declared… This was an opportunity for him to add his own, unprompted thoughts on his statement. Witnesses could also ask for the wording of their statement to be changed, which explains why words were sometimes crossed out, or added.
And when he was finally happy with the statement, Monsieur J. signed in the space beneath Monsieur G.’s closing formula: Read to the person in question, who maintains their account, and signs. The judge and the scribe also signed here, as did the translator, named R. Then each of them signed the bottom of each page to confirm they had read the statement.
In the process of preparing the prosecution of Monsieur J. for the murder of S., the judge E.A. produced close to four hundred pages of similar statements. It is these statements that tell the story of how the murder came to be committed.
 André Gide, Recollections of the Assize Court, p.56.
 Known in French as a juge d’instruction.
 PV de première comparution, Monsieur J., 14th April 1925.