The Cast of a Hand
At dawn on the outskirts of Paris in 1869, Hortense Kinck lies buried alive and surrounded by five of her children. Violently attacked, tormented and trapped, she sifts through the truths and deceits of her marriage to self-made industrialist, Jean Kinck. Why had he lied?
France, snug in the prosperity of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, is shocked by the vicious destruction of the bourgeois Kinck family. Under pressure from his superiors, the Chief of Police, Monsieur Claude, must unravel the baffling connections between the family and a mysterious young man, Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, a cold case, a famous palmist and France’s rising tide of dissatisfaction with the Emperor Napoleon III.
The Cast of a Hand is an unforgettable love story and a murder mystery based on one of the most shocking crimes of 19th century Paris. GS Johnston’s razor sharp prose interweaves and cross-pollinates the two narratives, both desperately trying to arrive at the truth.
To Read or Not to Read - guest post by author Greg Johnston
One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever been given was that I owed it to myself to read. At the time, I didn’t understand why and being so diffident to authority I would never have had the courage to ask. But I did obey and read. Harry the Dirty Dog led to The Famous Five, The Guns of Navarone to Great Expectations, Middlemarch to Bridget Jones Diary. Whilst I don’t know what the person meant exactly, when I offer this sage advice to others, I want people to experience taking up other subjective positions. Through reading fiction, I’ve an understanding and insight into other lives in disparate times and places. I’ve been an Afro-American woman who murdered her child so she wouldn’t endure slavery. A young tom-boy in the syrupy language of Southern USA confronting every type of bigotry. I’ve been a 14thC Franciscan novice, touched for the very first time in a wealthy Italian abbey.
Imagine not being able to read?
With this question in mind, I approached the major female character of my new novel, The Cast of a Hand. Hortense Kinck (née Roussell) was born on the 31st of June 1827 (this isn’t a typo, it’s on her birth certificate) to a family in Tourcoing, Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Far from her usual ken, at dawn on the outskirts of Paris in 1869, Hortense was found buried alive and surrounded by five of her children. The attack had been violent and sustained.
Initial research sources repeatedly stressed she was illiterate. As my research plodded on, I found her marriage certificate to Jean Kinck, a self-made industrialist who had moved to the area of Nord-Pas-de-Calais from Alsace. When she married Kinck, she signed the certificate with a bold X. This suggested she was in fact illiterate. But interestingly, the certificate listed her as a seamstress.
During the Second Empire, the area around Tourcoing and Roubaix was full of mills churning out endless metres of fabric, one of the major industries of the area. So rather than working in a mill, as her father did, she worked in a business, a producer turning the fabric of the area to clothing. How she followed directions or read patterns I don’t know but she was 25 when she married, indicating a possible decade of work. Clearly she worked to some level of proficiency. Did her lack of literacy really impede her life?
But I think as I grew closer to some version of Hortense, it was clear she could not “read” her husband. In the initial, limerance-flush of marriage, she probably had to do as she had always done – accept people at face value, on other people’s recommendations and trust. But after nearly 20 years of marriage and the rush of seven children (one boy died in infancy) when her husband started to change and refused to explain why, she was unable to “read” and understand.
The new business Jean had become involved in was outside Hortense’s experience, outside her list of words, outside her subjective experiences. In many ways, Jean deluded her, took advantage of her naiveté until it was too late and he realized, perhaps, that he had deluded himself as well.
|Monsieur Claude, Paris Chief of Police|
I wonder how she would have fared in these slings and arrows had she been able to read. Would she have found some insightful parallel in fiction? She was no Emma Bovary or the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, but I wonder, would she have avoided this most ghastly of fates? Or were the forces that moved against her too beyond conception and too large to anticipate? She couldn’t read the letters and telegrams her husband sent her, instead reliant on her children to read them. But I also wonder how skilled she was, or wasn’t, to recognize her husband’s voice in these letters. This secondary reading skill is something we perhaps take for granted, that we can judge the authenticity of a voice. Had she this skill, would she have recognized her husband?
I have two photographs of her which I’ve spent an inordinate number of hours staring at. One is the autopsy photograph, her body on a slab in the Paris Morgue. In the normal sequence of events, the morgue left unidentified bodies on public display. This public display is described in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin when Laurent searches for the body of Camille as proof that he is dead. Fortunately such was the outcry in this case, Madame Kinck and her children’s were removed from public display. In The Cast of a Hand, I forced Monsieur Claude, the Paris Chief of Police, to “read” her body closely, to note the condition of her hands and make suppositions about who she was. I can’t garner much from the gruesome photograph. Is it a smile or a snarl?
But I have another photograph, given to me by a distant relative of the family. From the age of the female child on Hortense knee, I would say the photograph was made about 18 months before the murders. Photography in 1867 was still prohibitively expensive and the realm of Vicomtes and Princesses. Hortense is not as bold as her husband or two younger male children, Achille and Alfred, who look the camera square in the eye. Nor is she as distracted or listless as her younger child, Marie. Hortense’s gaze is off slightly to the side of the camera. I’ll never know what she was looking at or why. Maybe the elder boys, Gustave, Emile and Henri, were off screen and she was monitoring them. But I think she was wary of this new technology, possibly disparaging of the need to make the photograph. By all reports she was a frugal woman but having made a lot of money, Jean had changed, buying things she thought unnecessary.
As my research went on, it was clear the novel was going to be in part about reading. The second narrative stream of The Cast of a Hand involves the investigation by Monsieur Claude, trying to “read” and interpret the pieces of evidence he had. During this time, he became more intimately involved with a chiromancer, Aldolphe Desbarolles, who claimed to be able to “read” a person’s character and disposition in the shape and lines of their hand. The movement of chiromancy was part of the greater investigation of phrenology. Had they met, I wonder what Desbarolles would have seen in Hortense hand?
Was her fate written there for the knowledgeable to read?
The Cast of a Hand is out today, October 1st 2015
About the author
G.S. Johnston is the author of three historical novels, The Cast of a Hand (2015), The Skin of Water (2012) and Consumption (2011), noted for their complex characters and well-researched settings.
In one form or another, Johnston has always written, at first composing music and lyrics. After completing a degree in pharmacy, a year in Italy re-ignited his passion for writing and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. Feeling the need for a broader canvas, he started writing short stories and novels.
Originally from Hobart, Tasmania, Johnston currently lives in Sydney, Australia.
He would be impressed with humanity if someone could succeed in putting an extra hour in every day.