Book Review: The Death Instinct by Jacques Mesrine. (Trans. Catherine Texier and Robert Greene)

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Despite being a folk hero in his native country, the criminal exploits of Jacques Mesrine were largely unknown in the UK until the release of a two-part feature film directed by Jean-François Richet and starring Vincent Cassell.

Famed for a succession of bank robberies and audacious escapes from prison. To the public he was a Robin Hood figure striking a blow against a corrupt and unjust system. For the police, Mesrine was a gangster that had to be put back behind bars. By the 1970s he had become the most wanted criminal in France and Canada.

Media savvy, Mesrine recognised the importance of positive press coverage in an age before spin became a buzzword. A succession of Paris Match cover appearances and interviews perpetuated an airbrushed account of his methods and motives.

A memoir containing gruesome details of killings ensured Mesrine was in total control of his myth’s creation. Written while incarcerated in La Santé Prison. He surreptitiously found a publisher willing to print the book and managed to smuggle the manuscript out of the institution. The book was an instant best-seller.

Seeking to quash the cult of Mesrine and prevent further distribution of the text, profits were confiscated by the state.

With the book no longer viable from a commercial standpoint the authorities were convinced this literary endeavour would be swiftly forgotten. They hadn’t banked on a curious would-be readers keen to get their hands on a copy after hearing positive comments about book. To meet initial demand a small number of bootleg copies were clandestinely distributed.

Mesrine’s life was cut short in 1979 when a van drove up beside his car and four armed police officers opened fire on the vehicle. His family maintain the shots were fired without warning but a 2004 court hearing ruled that the officers had interpreted Mesrine’s movements as potentially reaching for a weapon and had acted in accordance with the law.

After Mesrine’s death interest from the public in the all aspects of his criminal career and political leanings was at fever pitch. Catering to the seemingly insatiable appetite for information about the fallen gangster’s life a publisher reissued Mesrine’s memoir.

The reprinting was met by a legal action brought upon the publisher by Mesrine’s family. Seeking to reclaim confiscated royalties, the estate successfully mounted a challenge that saw the entire print run seized and outstanding author’s payments repatriated.

In 1984 Situationist publisher éditions Champ libre re-issued the book. Owner, editor, and publisher Gérard Lebovici was murdered shortly after the book hit the shelves. His killer remains at large.

Long out of print and never before available in an English language edition. Tam Tam Press’ issuing of a newly translated edition reveals that Mesrine had potential to forge a career as a full time writer if he’d he not sought a life of criminality.

Equal parts autobiography and socio-political tract. The author sketches a narrative of key stages in his descent into a life filled with feuds, scams, and murder without remorse or excessive self analysis.

As a child Mesrine frequently absconded from school to watch Westerns and Film Noirs at a local cinema. The legacy of those afternoons spent watching those films seeps through every page. Structured like a thriller, the book presents instances of brutality with shockingly vivid detail.

More than a true crime book, The Death Instinct offers an insight into the mind of a psychopath. With every sentence Mesrine is attempting to manipulate the reader and control their views of his actions and get them to subscribe to his political agenda.

The most significant literary account of a criminal’s life to have been published since Edward Bunker’s Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade.

The Death Instinct can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Death-Instinct-Jacques-Mesrine/dp/0966234685

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