One of the benefits of being a late starter (or re-starter) in the field of literary studies, is that I sometimes dip into standard works and pick up on items that made little sense to me on first reading. Take, for example, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which must have first come to my attention as an undergraduate student of anthropology, many years ago. I took it to bed with me the other evening and flicked through, landing on ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’, an item that leads to one of those chain reaction searches through Google until I land up with Jean Giono, who is a favourite of mine, and who wrote on the Dominici affair at the time it hit the news in 1952.
The brief version of what happened:
On August 5, 1952, a family of English campers – Sir Jack Drummond, his wife, Lady Ann, and their ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth – were found murdered at the side of Route 96 near Lurs, in the Alpes-Haute Provence department. A few yards from the scene of the crime stood a farmhouse that belonged to a formidable old character, Gaston Dominici, aged 75. The man had his own peculiar grandeur, a mixture of illiteracy, severity, and violence. The case attracted much attention and risked pushing France (which was undergoing a bloodletting in Indochina) back through the years to the traumatic divisions of the Dreyfus affair.
Sir Jack, a well-known nutritionist, who classified vitamins in the way they are recognized today, and helped devise UK rationing in World War Two had been in the British Intelligence Service during the war.
In the attack both Drummond and his wife suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Their daughter Elizabeth’s head had been crushed by the butt of the rifle that had been used to shoot her parents. Two of Dominici’s sons accused their father of the triple murder; the accused in turn suspected one of the sons and a grandson. On November 17, 1954, a few days after the start of the rebellion in Algeria, the trial of Gaston Dominici began; it ended ten days later when he was sentenced to death. The Court of Assizes in Digne was crowded with European journalists, including Jean Giono. Paul Morand, Roland Barthes, and Orson Welles were all present or wrote about it. Many people had the immediate impression that everything was a fix-up. When the truth seemed close to emerging during the trial, the chief judge was quick to interrupt or divert attention.
Gaston Dominici, a farmer and shepherd born in 1877, had lived all his life, apart from his military service in the Chasseurs des Alpes, more among animals than among men. He was practically illiterate and did not understand the elegant French of the chief judge and the state attorney. He hesitated at their questions, confused the meanings of words, and these facts were falsely taken for symptoms of guilt. His lawyer seemed unable to organize a logical line of defense, but after the sentence even the minister of justice had doubts and ordered a useless supplementary investigation. It was necessary to safeguard against risks, however, and therefore the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1960 General de Gaulle granted his release, but not a pardon. Protesting his innocence to the end, Dominici died on April 4, 1965, in a hospice in Digne, after his farm had fallen prey to creditors. His modest grave is not far from the place of rest of the three Drummonds.
Speculation has since mounted about the real cause for the murders, and the possible explanations include (a) that since Drummond was an SOE operative during World War Two, the murder was a settling of scores from the period of the Nazi occupation; (b) that Drummond and his family was the victim of a Soviet KGB hit-squad; (c) that as a senior government adviser and research scientist, Drummond was either engaged in, or else was the victim of industrial espionage, and (d) the family was murdered in a random assault by a German-based criminal gang en route to rob a jewellery store in Marseilles. This last theory seems to me the most compelling for a number of reasons, and a full account appears here.
A BBC East Midlands documentary came to its own conclusions, but makes no mention of the German gang. If, as seemed likely at the time, Drummond did fall victim to a KGB hit-squad, and the French government then in power knew this, Dominici appears precisely in the light in which he presented himself: as the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the state. Paris could not, in the middle of the Cold War and at the height of the Indochina crisis, admit that the Soviets could have assailed some foreign citizens in the very heart of France. But this seems a far less likely explanation than the one involving the criminal gang on their way to a job, who happen upon the family and think there might be additional spoils for the taking. Against the background of all this speculation stood a primitive shepherd who, as Jean Giono noted, seemed to have stepped out of one of Virgil’s bucolic odes.
Whatever the eventual resolution, if there is one, for now – and possibly forever – the Dominici case remains unresolved.