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Professor Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze from our School of Modern Languages and Cultures

A literary fiction novel inspired by a real-life double murder in 1930s France has been published by Professor Catherine Dousteyssier-Khoze from our School of Modern Languages and Cultures.

‘Les malices’ (An Orderly House) is Professor Dousteyssier-Khoze’s second novel.

It focuses on the murders of a bourgeois mother and her adult daughter by their two maids, the Papin sisters.

The murder happened in provincial France in 1933 and had a huge resonance in the French cultural imagination.

Combining fact and fiction

‘Les malices’ provides a fictional account of the murders through the distorted perception of the younger sister, Lea, as well as from various perspectives and writing styles.

It combines historical records such as police statements, medical records and court documents as well as trying to enter the mental space of the two sisters.

Professor Dousteyssier-Khoze explains: “There is a strong class dimension to the story, so I decided to look at the household manuals of the time.

“The advice given to the lady of the house on how to handle her servants is very shocking to a 21st-century readership, and I often quoted the manuals in a deadpan, ironic way.

“Although the sisters were arguably treated quite well, I was interested in what was going on under the surface.

“I wanted to show the everyday silences (and resentments) between maids and masters.”

Cracks in the story

Professor Dousteyssier-Khoze said the murders inspired her novel as she was fascinated by the case which shook French society, particularly due to the apparent lack of motive.

She said: “On the surface, the Papin sisters appeared sane but there were clues (linguistic, behavioural) that hinted at pathological traits.

“That’s what I wanted to talk about, the clues, the cracks in the story.

“The representation of madness is something that fascinates me in literature.”

Creative writing expertise

Professor Dousteyssier-Khoze’s research at Durham focuses on three main areas: 19th century French literature and culture, French cinema and creative writing.

Her novel aligns with the national Research Excellence Framework as an academic output in the category of creative writing in French literature and reflects her expertise in the subject.

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