Looking back over the somewhat dizzying landscape of my life, I would say that before the events that turned it upside down, I was an unremarkable man, bordering on the dull. I had a wife, a daughter, a profession in which I was respected, and my criminal record was a blank sheet. But then, I was the victim of an attempt to oust me at work, my wife left me, and I had four murders to my name. If I had to sum up my unusual trajectory in one sentence, I would say ‘it was all the fault of the cigarettes’. It was in 2007 that the heinous law took effect. The law that drove smokers to congregate outside office buildings in courtyards where smoking was soon also banned. Janitors and office cleaners quickly made it known that the sudden increase in their workload, from all the extra cigarette butts, would rapidly become unmanageable without a consequent re-evaluation of the fruits of their labour. Businesses ignored their demands and smokers were thrown out onto the street.
‘These heinous laws will have everyone doing it in the street.’
I had suggested this startling phrase to my lawyer, with a subtle nod to Marthe Richard’s law of April 1946 that ordered—with not a trace of irony—the closing of the maisons closes: luxurious, legal brothels across France, where champagne and other delights had been liberally dispensed for decades. Proprietors and madams suffered the torments of nervous depression, previously known only to bourgeois ladies of leisure and their overworked husbands. As for the girls, they found themselves out on the street. Self-employed, until they fell into the clutches of merciless, often violent, pimps.
Our sweetest vices—stockings and suspenders, champagne, curls of cigar smoke, sexy girls, packets of twenty—have been thrown out onto the street with the rubbish, with the State in the role of sanitiser-in-chief. The dreams of our elected representatives are the nightmares of science fiction: a world where no one smokes and no one drinks, where the men are all thrusting executives with dazzling teeth and careers to match, and the women are all smiling, professionally fulfilled mothers of 2.5 children. Sanctimonious laws for the good of one and all are building, brick by brick, a sad, uniform world that reeks of bleach.
My lawyer had been unconvinced by my reasoning, and even less about using it himself. Obviously, he would cite my nicotine dependency, but without making too much of it. I wasn’t in trouble for having smoked in a public place—it was ‘a little more serious than that, Monsieur Valantine’.
There are various ways to embark on a criminal career. The first is to discover you have a calling. Serial killers are an excellent example: from an early age they feel different and experience strong animosity to the world around them, coupled with a highly questionable determination to shape it to their own ends. Psychopathic, schizophrenic, paranoiac: medical terminology abounds for those who choose to dispatch their neighbour, often with elaborately staged savagery. And yet, since they repeat the same type of crime over and over again, they are quickly identified and generally end up behind bars, where they keep their psychiatrists happy and, more recently, make novelists rich. It’s very important to distinguish the murderer, who is an occasional killer, from the assassin, who is a professional. The murderer may be the unhappy cheated-on husband who, on discovering his misfortune, seizes his hunting rifle or his lobster knife; if his career ends there, he will just be called a murderer. But the assassin makes a career of murder. The number of murders and the resulting criminal record determine his right to the title. A murderer could also be a bank robber who finds himself cornered by the forces of law and order, uses his weapon and kills two or three police officers. He’s dangerous, but he’s motivated by money, not by bloodlust. That said, the desire to grab someone else’s cash regularly leads to violent misunderstandings with bank cashiers.I’m a little of all of them. I progressed from an initial blunder to fully premeditated crimes.
Where among these examples would I place myself? I’m a little of all of them. I progressed from an initial blunder to fully premeditated crimes.
At the beginning of his career, the smoker is generally intent on killing no one but himself. But forces beyond my control drove me to become a killer of others. And not through passive smoking. When it came to murder, I played an active role. A very active role.
The train of events that drove me first to disobey the eleventh commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Smoke,’ followed by the sixth, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, was set in motion one winter, that grey-white season, the color of ashes and smoke, in my fiftieth year.
I was a hardened smoker with a forty-a-day habit, and I had exercised the royal prerogative of smoking in my office for fifteen years and more. The first blow came with the introduction of the law that banned smoking on business premises, other than in areas specially designated for the purpose. Initially, at HBC Consulting—Europe’s biggest firm of headhunters—we chose to ignore the ruling. The department heads were untouchable: no one would dare ask Véronique Beauffancourt, Jean Gold or myself to extinguish what was, for us, an extension of our anatomy. We were smokers of power. Nothing could bring us down. But dare they did.
The French Revolution probably had its roots in some rustic inn, one afternoon, where a man with a bigger mouth than everyone else slammed his tankard of wine down on the table and hollered ‘Death to the King!’, to the applause of the small assembled company. The man’s name, the names of the men who cheered him on, and the inn where the scene took place are long forgotten.
Precisely the same thing happened in business premises across France, in the early years of the new millennium. At HBC Consulting, the rebellion was sparked in the canteen, where the feisty workers found their Saint-Just in the person of a highly attractive young blonde woman who was the talk of the company during the brief time she worked for us. This long-legged creature, who was about as friendly as the prison gates I would soon come to know, loathed cigarette smoke with a vengeance.
Her beauty was matched only by her intolerance of our poison of choice. And yet my male colleagues, who had been in the habit of lunching in nearby cafés, had all made a hasty return to the canteen. Despite its sub-standard food and drab view over the rooftops of Paris, overheated in summer and freezing in winter, the HBC canteen had suddenly acquired the allure of a changing room backstage at a fashion show. None of the men paid the least attention to their food—indeed, many ate nothing at all—but all were mesmerised by the new arrival’s figure.
‘She’s temping here. She’s a model really,’ whispered the frightful Jean Verider—Senior Headhunter for the marketing sector—at lunch one day.
‘You’ve spoken to her?’ I said.
Looking down at his grated-carrot salad, he flushed a deep red.
‘No, Françoise in Human Resources told me.’
The girl’s beauty was plain to see; and her loathing of all of us, with our grey suits and grey hair, was plain to see, too. Her loathing of us and her distaste for the canteen job she was forced to take while waiting for cover-girl fame were, I’m sure, the Molotov cocktail that blasted our smoking privileges.Our exterminating angel managed to convince the refectory harpies that they were entirely within their rights to insist on the smoking ban at their place of work.
Our exterminating angel managed to convince the refectory harpies that they were entirely within their rights to insist on the smoking ban at their place of work. One day, as we were all arriving for lunch, Véronique Beauffancourt asked for an ashtray and was refused. The large woman dishing out the cooked vegetables and sliced meat pointed to a small sticker she had affixed to the wall with her fat pudgy-fingered hands, an act which had no doubt given her a pleasure not experienced since her wedding night. A cigarette inside a red circle, the latter scored through with an oblique line of the same color. Véronique, who was going through a divorce, declared it was a scandal, and was immediately backed up by Jean Gold with his collector’s Dunhill pipe (Caviar Collection). It so happened that Gold had set his sights on Véronique. For him, the incident was very timely. The union it led to continues to this day, because they still write to me, always with the same slightly irritating greeting: ‘Poor dear Fabrice, …’
I remember asking, that lunchtime, if this was some sort of joke. And the fat lady replying that indeed it was not, it was the law, and high time it was respected, or prosecutions would ensue. We were left speechless at the woman’s nerve. Immediately, a committee was formed to work out how to fight back and a direct appeal was made to Hubert Beauchamps-Charellier himself. Stirred by the fury at the smokers’ table, even Jean Verider—who was extremely reserved as a rule—was moved to speak, asking where the blonde canteen girl had gone, for she was nowhere to be seen.
A small, thin, short-haired woman, whom we all suspected of being a Trotskyist, at first pretended not to know who we were talking about, the better to stoke the mounting exasperation at our table. Jean Verider could bear it no longer.
‘The blonde bombshell, who do you think?’ he burst out.
‘This place isn’t exactly overrun with them as far as I can see!’
The woman glared at him.
‘Oh, I suppose you mean Magalie.’
‘That’s the one,’ Verider agreed.
‘Magalie left yesterday at lunchtime. We organised a small farewell drinks for her.’
‘And we weren’t invited?’ said Verider in a choked voice.
‘Canteen staff don’t fraternise with the office workers,’ she retorted, and turned on her heel.
The girl had breezed in, sown the seeds of our destruction and then disappeared. In less than two weeks, she had won over the canteen harpies like a white missionary converting a tribe of savages. It was a magnificent performance that we headhunters would have done well to ponder. Some people have a strange power of domination over others: a magical gift, capable of opening a thousand doors, either to heaven or to hell. Beauty is often a factor. Not always, I admit: Hitler, who stirred multitudes by preaching the superiority of the Aryan race, was short, dark and ugly. But that’s a different story.
‘It’s the law.’
Hubert Beauchamps-Charellier, the sixty-two-year-old founder of the business that bore his initials, had pronounced this while drawing on his Montecristo No. 1. ‘Nothing I can do,’ he went on; ‘that’s just how it is. Soon, it will be the norm. Look at me, puffing on my Havana cigar; I’m an outlaw. But I’m also the boss. I’m all alone in my office, and I can do as I please.’
‘We all have offices of our own, too!’ We had answered in unison, we three smokers, like children kept indoors at playtime by the teacher.
Hubert Beauchamps-Charellier gave a muddled account of laws, smoking bans and contraventions, which could end up costing him dearly and causing problems he neither wanted nor needed. Then he said he had an urgent call to make to a secretary of state. It was early afternoon. We returned to our respective offices and, ignoring the incident, continued to smoke. Benson & Hedges for me; Capstan tobacco in a Dunhill pipe for Gold; Vogue menthols for Véronique.As a non-smoker, far from sharing my dismay, she was actually a supporter of the putsch plotted by her kind.
That evening, I told my wife what had happened. She also said that I’d have to get used to it, it was the law. As a non-smoker, far from sharing my dismay, she was actually a supporter of the putsch plotted by her kind. After a Martini Rosso each and (in my case) two cigarettes smoked in the sitting room, we headed out to the Paris Modern Art Museum for a private view: an exhibition entitled Inflammatory Art: Smoke and Flux.
‘Is this an anti-smoking show?’ I asked her.
‘No, Fabrice,’ she sighed. ‘It’s conceptual art. About the Fluxus group. I’ve explained it all before.’
My wife is editor-in-chief of Moderna, the iconic contemporary art review. An expert on three or four artists whose names I can never remember and the official archivist of a fourth, who has his own museum in America. I say ‘my wife’, because we are still married. I have stubbornly refused all her petitions for divorce since my incarceration, and continue to think of myself as the husband of the famous Sidonie Gravier.
Having no opinions whatsoever in common with the person whose life you share is a risky business. Even, I would say with hindsight, impossible. I have always, I admit, been impervious to contemporary art. After many years together, I would pay a heavy price for our aesthetic differences. One contemporary artist would suffer the consequences, too, and achieve greater fame dead than alive. He didn’t even have to ask.
Excerpted from SMOKING KILLS by Antoine Laurain. Used with the permission of the publisher, Gallic Press. Copyright © 2017 by Antoine Laurain, translation © 2018 by Louise Lalaurie Rogers.