25 - In Conversation With Albert Bassom

Excerpt from The Journal of Murder Vol. 72, Issue 2

After establishing himself as one of the foremost proponents of the classical school of poisoners, Bassom shifted direction in 1972, eschewing his previous methods and embracing what he termed the “New Brutalism”. This excursion was marked by the savage beating of Claude Bastopoule, whose body was found in Montmartre on 4th October 1972. In this excerpt from an interview held at the Annual Symposium on Premeditated Death, he talks to Peter Cohen about his dissatisfaction with traditional ideas of class, the ennui of contemporary murder and his attempts to redefine the notion of premeditation.

Peter Cohen: Up until this point you had always been known for a strong sense of artistry in your work. It wasn’t uncommon to have your murders described by critics as beautiful or touching and I think I’m right in saying that there was a very strong sense of history involved.

Albert Bassom: No-one knew more about ancient poisons than me!

PC: Well, exactly. I always felt that you were a… custodian, I suppose, of the grand tradition. I’m curious as to what led to you discarding this notion.

AB: I don’t know if there was any one moment that made me think “Oh, I need to change everything”, but there was certainly a growing sense of unease about the very notion of there being a “grand tradition”. I suppose you have to place it in the context of the time. After the student riots in Paris I think a lot of artists, writers, even murderers, were forced to evaluate the political implications of their work in a way that we had not before. It wasn’t just the Marxists who were doing it. Even those on the right or the centre, they too had to think about the implications of what we were doing. At that time it felt like the world was changing and that the old models simply wouldn’t work any more. Everything was political. Everything. Why should murder be any different? It could not. The displeasure I felt was coming through in all sorts of ways. The two pieces I did before Bastopoule were very tired. I wasn’t happy with them at all, even though to the critics raved about them. They said that they were the very embodiment of the classical tradition - perfectly constructed murders with undetectable poisons and perfect alibis - but to me, they were nothing but shit - empty gestures with no meaning. The press they were hailing them as masterpieces, but I felt dead inside, as dead as the victims.

PC: There was no satisfaction?

AB: There was no excitement! All around me, people were struggling, fighting, bleeding for something and here I was, fiddling around with chemical compounds and wealthy dowagers. I felt completely out of step with the times. I could feel a rage building up inside of me and for the first time, I thought I should explore this rage rather than control it. In my whole career, it had always been about concealing the intention, hiding the emotion so that you can avoid detection. This began, I think, because of self-preservation, but along the way it became an indulgence. I grew tired of thinking of murder as an intellectual exercise and I wanted to explore the primal savagery at it’s heart. For all the analysis and criticism writers like you generate, this is still an act of violence. Dressing it up as if it were poetry or ballet or architecture seemed fundamentally dishonest.

PC: It’s ironic, though, that this came about as a result of what you describe as a political awakening. Do you think there’s an inherent tension in making a conscious decision to act without thinking?

AB: Oh, certainly. But that tension speaks to the core of us, I think. We are all stretched between our desires and our thoughts. That is the essence of existence. But recognition of that fact doesn’t make it any less valid. And, just to go back to what you said for a moment, I take issue with the idea that politics is somehow the realm of the intellectual. It’s a venal, bloody business about domination and power, the subjugation of one life into another. So, you see, it’s a very natural fit with the business of what we do, no? 

PC: Oh, certainly. But when one thinks of political murder, one thinks of Brutus and Caesar, or Che Guevara-

AB: The classical model again. You see, it’s the notion that politics is the realm of the statesman, of these faraway gods who rarely deign to involve themselves with the petty concerns of mortals. The same thing had happened with murder. The intellectualisation of the craft made it removed from the reality. Those of us who were involved somehow thought that there was a distinction between what we did by choice and what the common man did through rage. This elitism is what first led to the establishment of the societies, journals and so forth of which we’re all familiar and by whose patronage we are sitting here today. And this is not to say that these things don’t have their place and value, but for me, at that time, I felt that what had started as a means of elevating and expanding human knowledge of death was, in fact, inhibiting it. There was such a snobbishness about murder amongst the intellectuals and I was having these crazy arguments with people. They would say things like: “Well, hitting someone over the head with a blunt object isn’t really murder” and I would get really angry. I would have these long rows, but I could tell that it wasn’t getting me anywhere. As time went on, I spent less and less time with those people. I just couldn’t take it any more. I was getting very depressed. I would start planning a new piece and I would walk away within twenty minutes. 

PC: What sort of things were you working on?

AB: I had thought my next development would be in acids. It’s difficult to recall the details, but I think I was looking for a way to slowly corrode someone from the inside. Which is an interesting idea, I suppose, but at the time it seemed to be just an extension of the same old chemistry homework I had been doing for the past twenty years. I think… actually, I’m fairly sure it was the hippies who gave me the idea for that one. It was a play on words, I suppose. Acid meaning LSD and acid meaning corrosive materials. It wasn’t very well worked out. Again, it was that intellectual exercise: playing with words, creating puns, that sort of thing.

PC: What did you think of the hippies? Were you an advocate of free love?

AB: The hippies didn’t interest me greatly. It all seemed to be about drugs and bad music.

PC: You weren’t an advocate of free love, then?

AB: No, not at all. I think there’s always a price for love. There’s always a price for everything. 

PC: So how would you describe your political allegiances at this time?

AB: I don’t think I would be able to, either now or then. I wasn’t particularly interested in factions and ideologies so much as overall sense of chaos and upheaval. I went to a few meetings of some groups and they didn’t interest me much. It seemed to be the same sort of abstract bickering I had seen in conferences such as this one. It wasn’t so much that I was drawn to any movement, but repelled from what I had already known. I didn’t want to go to rallies and hear speeches. I had heard enough oratory for a lifetime. I rejected eloquence and everything that came with it. It was only when I attended court to pay a parking fine that I found what I had been searching for. I watched the prisoners being brought through and entering their pleas and I saw the real nature of murder that I had been seeking. Here were the people who killed not through some intellectual or artistic pretension, but for other, more pertinent reasons. Money, love, sex, envy, frustration, greed… it was all so much more real. After that, I would sit in the gallery of the courthouse and listen to the trials. The expert testimony didn’t interest me, but the voices of the people on trial were fascinating to me. After all the meandering and the blah-blah-blah of the intellectuals, I found myself confronted with the authentic voice of fatal violence. Time and time again, I heard these people testify and give their reasons for killing another human being and do you know what the most frequent answer they gave was?

PC: I don’t know.

AB: Exactly! They would say: “I don’t know”. Time and time again, no matter what the circumstances, they would say that they didn’t know why they did it, they just did. And this to me, as someone who had spent years thinking about the conscious thought behind every aspect of murder, this was like a revelation. I thought then, I must explore this for myself.

PC: And this is what led you to Claude Bastopoule?

AB: Not directly. I did not run out of the courthouse to kill. While I had the inclination to do something less measured, I was aware of the fact that these men that had inspired me were in the court. For all their vitality and passion, they were idiots who could not evade capture. The question then was how to fuse what I knew with what I did not know. I had to unlearn the fripperies, but retain the core notion of killing and getting away with it. I decided then that I must start from scratch. No more poisons. No more high society murders. No more artifice and no more bullshit. The work from then on must be direct and it must be truthful. I had to cast off the mantle of artistry and instead focus on the brutality of the deed. To do anything else would be rank hypocrisy.

PC: How would one go about preparing for something like that? Did you have a plan of action, or did that run against the principle of the exercise?

AB: I had no plans. What I prepared instead were contingencies. I knew that I did not want to poison more grandmothers, but I formed no other picture of the sort of person I might murder. Instead, I went through a process of readiness, where I felt I could be ready to act impulsively when the opportunity arose. It was a very difficult thing, to work against one’s training like that. After decades of being careful and measured, trying to operate on my natural urges was not without it’s challenges. At every point, I questioned myself. With every decision, I had to ask whether it was my brutal self that was making the decision, or if it was a result of a lifetime of programming. Often, I didn’t come up with an answer, which to me, as someone who was always so controlled and measured, was a scary feeling. But with that fear came power and freedom.

PC: Did you have any notion of how your next murder would take place, or did you leave everything to chance?

AB: I knew that I would not use poisons. I had spent decades perfecting the undetectable, untraceable murder and could extemporise at length about how poisons were the purest form of murder, because the human body is made of organic matter and so on and so forth. I had grown tired of my own philosophy, so I turned to the most primal methods I could imagine. At first I thought it would have to be with my bare hands, because really that was the only pure way. I trained for a while, in wrestling and kickboxing, but I was never really that good at it. If I had been younger, I might have been able to pursue it, but by that point I didn’t really have a full grasp of the skills required. And, you know, I had tried to get myself into some situations to see how I would do, bar fights and the like, but I did not come off well from them. I got beaten up! I would have bruises and cuts and I would have to spend weeks recovering. And, you know, when I was laying in my bed I realised that it was stupid to try and enter a fair fight. Murder is not a competition, it is an act perpetrated on one person by another. If two men enter a boxing ring and fight and then one of the men dies, is that murder? The men are trying to beat each other, but it is a contest of rough equivalents. When it comes to murder, even impulsive murder, one must put the victim at a disadvantage. Now, I didn’t have the physical strength to do this with my hands, so I looked for a weapon. I chose the knife, but I didn’t want to be an expert, so I decided to use my left hand. I didn’t train with it, but I would practice getting it out of my pocket. That was the extent of it. Of course, when the time came, I couldn’t get the knife out of my pocket in time and I had to improvise.

PC: Was there just a moment when you thought “I’m ready”?

AB: No, no. It happened quite by chance, which was wonderful. As I said before, I made contingencies, but I did not plan. How it happened was that I had been visiting friends in Montmartre, just for dinner, you know, and as I left their home I was walking toward the Metro and there was this little park on one of the streets. As I was walking past it, I saw that this man was in there, all by himself. I didn’t know what he was doing, but something made me walk towards him. I had the knife in my pocket - I carried it everywhere at that time - but I didn’t take it out beforehand. As I got closer to the man, I saw that he was just taking a piss, you know, and from the way he was swaying I could tell that he was drunk. I was by this small rockery and I picked up this heavy stone and walked up towards him. I didn’t know if he was going to turn around, if he could hear me, if he knew I was there or anything. For me, who had always been so controlled and calculated, it was a liberating experience. It wasn’t calculated. I just picked up the rock and - BOP - smashed it against the back of the head.

PC: But you did a little more than that, didn’t you?

AB: Well, yes. I had to. A single blow is not brutal. It is not savage. A single blow to the back of the head that a man does not see, this is a kindness and this is not what my journey was about. After the first blow, he went to the floor and I turned him over and I struck him again and again with the rock. It is hard work, to crush a man’s skull this way. It takes persistence and brute force. In that moment, I understood what our ancestors must have felt like. I’m talking here about the neanderthals and the like. Their death dealings were not pretty. They were not elegant in any sense. Tapping into that rage was an experience of pure humanity in an unadulterated form. I found that once I started, I could not stop.

PC: I believe it took some weeks for Bastopoule to be identified?

AB: That’s correct.

PC: What was the reaction like when the news came out about the murder? How was it received? 

AB: By the general media, or within our circles?

PC: Both, I suppose. By the general public, first of all.

AB: Well, the strange thing was that it didn’t get much attention in the press. The man had been drunk and poor, so it wasn’t seen as much of a priority to the police, which I thought was very telling about French society. The fact that it was seen as no big deal brought about the political aspect that I had not intended, but that was part of the chaotic nature of events. One thing happens, sparking another thing and another. Another example - the fact that he was taking a piss at the time meant that he had his penis out. That made the police think that he was a homosexual and that it had been a gay-bash. Just another dead queer, they think, so why bother to investigate? I mean, they did, but their attempts were cursory at best. They never put much effort into it, which I thought spoke very poorly of them. It was disgusting, how little effort they put in. As for my so-called contemporaries, most of them didn’t even want to discuss it. I made a point of going to the club at the Rue Morgue for a little while after just to eavesdrop on gossip, you know, and all these snobs were pooh-poohing it, saying it was just the work of immigrants. I would talk to them, saying “don’t you think there’s something interesting here” and they would just dismiss it. “No,” they said, “this is not what we’re about.” The snobbery involved was ridiculous. 

PC: When did you reveal that you were responsible?

AB: It was at the monthly review. At that time, the club at the Rue Morgue held these little events where people could go up and present their latest works. It was all rather pompous, you know, as these things tend to be. Some people would show slides and talk about how their murders related to the symbols of the Mayans or that they were representations of the collective unconscious. It was all a lot of hogwash. Still, I knew the fellow who arranged these things and I said that I would like to speak at the next event. He seemed a little surprised, because usually we all knew each other’s business - who was killing who and how - because the homicidal intelligentsia was a relatively small crowd and rather inbred, socially speaking. I say to him that I have something new to talk about, but that I cannot give anything away. He says “Ok” and at the end of the month I stand up at the podium. Everyone there is expecting some intricate, detailed plot because I am known for this sort of thing. But I get up in front of this distinguished crowd of murderers - and these were some of the most pre-eminent murderers of the time-

PC: Like who?

AB: Oh, the usual names. De La Croix, Petit Ganache, Henri Larochelle. Gregory Hastings, I think was there. All the major names of the time and I stand up in front of all these pre-eminent murderers and critics and I say: “I killed Claude Bastopoule. I bashed his brains in with a rock.” Well, they didn’t believe me at first. “Impossible”, they said. “There’s no way that Bassom, the elegant, intelligent murderer, could do such a thing.” Eventually, I had to show them a piece of Bastopoule’s skull to convince them. It still had blood and brain matter dried on it, but they didn’t want to believe that I had done it. Larochelle had tears in his eyes when he asked why I had committed such a base crime. I told him that it was because I wanted to be free. He didn’t understand what I was talking about and I was something of an outcast after that. They were talking about forcing me to leave the club at the Rue Morgue, but then Tibor Sienkiewicz wrote an article in the Journal defending my work. That gave me a little bit of credibility, even if the chin-strokers didn’t like it, they had to grudgingly concede that it was valid. If it hadn’t been for Sienkiewicz and that article, I might have lost interest in killing entirely. 

To read more of this transcript, including Bassom’s full lecture on the use of prehistoric tools in a modern setting, please order the The Journal of Murder’s Annual Review, available from your club secretary.