‘When the Guillotine Fell’: a grisly history


“When the Guillotine Fell” by Jeremy Mercer (St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. $24.95

It may come as a surprise to some that France routinely used the guillotine as its official method of capital punishment until 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi became the last man guillotined in the port town of Marseilles.

Jeremy Mercer’s “When the Guillotine Fell,” a history of the device and capital punishment in general, uses Djandoubi’s crime — the brutal torture and murder of a 22-year-old woman — to trace the debate and methods of capital punishment.

Invented in the late 1700s, the guillotine was actually conceived as a modern, humane way to execute criminals. It replaced far more gruesome methods of torture and death such as drawing and quartering, the wheel and the highly inefficient beheading by sword, each described in the book in excruciating detail.

Mercer, a Canadian expatriate, wrote his last book, “Time Was Soft There,” as a paean to the legendary Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare Co.

His current book, told in alternating chapters, is half devoted to Djandoubi’s story. A Tunisian who emigrated to Marseilles in search of a better life, he became increasingly depressed and violent after his leg was severed in an accident. Handsome and exotic, he seduced and then controlled several young women, before torturing one of them to death.

The other half of the book traces capital punishment, from cave paintings depicting prehistoric execution to modern-day ethical debates. Mercer peppers this part of the book with fascinating anecdotes, such as the Marquis de Sade’s view of the guillotine from his prison cell (he himself apparently escaped his own beheading due to a clerical error) and Dr. Guillotin’s eventual disavowal of the mechanism he created.

Djandoubi’s half of the book never feels much more fleshed out than an extended newspaper clipping (Mercer is a former crime reporter). But as the debate over capital punishment extends indefinitely in courts across the country, “When the Guillotine Fell” effectively illustrates just how long and in how many forms society has contemplated reasons for and against capital punishment.