Frédéric Boutet: The Faker (complete)

Oil painting of woman in forest

Frédéric Boutet


The Faker












The man stood haggard, still gripping the knife. He was in a sordid hotel room, the dead girl stretched at his feet, a dark pool oozing from her open throat.

He had found her working the boulevard Sébastopol. A Saturday, four cocktails instead of dinner…because she resembled a girl of Toulon he’d once loved before joining the colonial campaign, he had followed her.

She had led him to this foul hotel…he had known no more until now. It seemed to him more money was asked than agreed to on the street. That they’d fought. That forced to the bed, she had screamed and scratched, bit him at last, from a pocket drawn a knife. He was crazed by alcohol and anger. He had ripped away the knife and struck blindly.

Sober, he looked at her on the floor, crumpled there, a miserable corpse with a livid face, eyes filled even now with fear and rage. He felt cloaked in horror, aghast at what had befallen him. A thousand frightful visions churned in his head. The trial, prison; the scaffold, it might be. A quarter of an hour ago, he had been Jean Billy, former colonial sergeant, a drinker, a bad-tempered man, but an honest one…it was understood. He had done well enough with his life. But now, now… He wanted reflection, decision, a means to salvation, but it was useless. His ideas fled, his head spun.

“I’m going mad,” he said to himself. He quivered. Mad! Lunatics are not responsible…

But someone was running up the stairs. Pounding shook the aged door. Blood flowing across the floor had filtered down, making a sinister red blotch on the ceiling below. The hotelier and his son were called to investigate…they had come up.

They forced the door, saw the girl with her throat cut lying on the floor. On the bed, his legs dangling, a stupid, vague smile on a face otherwise without expression, sat a man who seemed unaware, who played with a bloody knife, who did not lift even his head when they seized him.

It was a wreck who appeared before the magistrate. The man seemed fallen to the state of an animal, no longer knowing how to speak, neither understanding nor remembering himself. He drooled, giggled, smiled a smile eternally demented; he had to be fed, washed, dressed and made tidy like an infant in a diaper.

The struggle was awful between, on the one side, Jean Billy, closed in his ruined state as in a place of asylum; and on the other side, the police, the judges, the forensic doctors, united to surprise this fakery, to set the trap that would make him betray himself, to drag him from the madhouse at last, and assign him to the labor gang…or put him to death.

But the lunatic remained mad and yielded nothing. All the classic tests failed. The reflexes, the light passed before the eyes, the shocks applied to the crossed legs, failed. However, Jean Billy slept.





He slept like a man who enjoys his reason, a sleep of nightmares, terrors and anguishes, and the psychiatric doctors who studied him knew that a madman does not sleep thus. They hoped to triumph one day, over this man the celebrated Professor Cave called the most admirable faker he’d ever seen.

The day was not yet come, for despite, on the part of the experts, a redoubled effort in this fierce battle, Jean Billy, for his part, held on to the end, and did not allow himself to be surprised.

It was a dilemma to engage the passions. Against him was his sleeping habit, proof enough, declared the alienist Cave, since this was the only thing that could escape the astonishing strength of the subject’s will… No man, when weary enough, can avoid sleeping. For Jean, there was the incredible difficulty of the role he played, and had for months now, without fault. The perfection of his incapability seemed beyond human power, but there was his history of alcoholism, his long stay in the unhealthy colonies, a slight heredity discovered—one of his uncles having been confined for paranoid delusion.

He had also the talent and authority of the great lawyer Cabrolle, who from the first had taken an interest in the case, and was appointed his defender. And it was to the assizes Jean Billy was sent, the judge reluctant to rule and preferring a jury have the task of pronouncing on this obscure problem.

The duel between prosecutor and defense was formidable. The culpability of the accused was not in doubt, since he had been caught red-handed; all the mystery reposed on the question of responsibility, and Jean was himself his best advocate.

They had to carry him to the dock, as he could no longer walk at all, and between the court officers hung flaccid as a heap of rags, oblivious to the clothes they had dressed him in, the chair they had seated him on. He answered not a word to the judge’s questions. They had to take him under the arms to make him stand, and when they let him go, he fell as before, like a bundle.

But Professor Cave stood in front of him in the witness box, and solemnly swore he was responsible, and played them for fools, making himself incapable to save himself from prison, or from execution. He invoked personal experience and his conscience, as a practitioner of integrity; his testimony was logical and moving, illuminating in detail, of the clues he had gathered to establish this conviction. He expounded above all, energetically, on this famous proof of sleep, the sleep revelatory of the murderer, that in itself reversed the powerful effort Jean had for months made to simulate his madness.

“Effort so astounding,” finished Cave, “that few by act of will are able to produce. I consider Jean Billy one of the most remarkable men I have ever studied.”

His disposition made a lively impression on the jury. But the remarkable man had to be carried from the dock, as it was necessary to change him and clean his seat.





The speech of the general advocate was academic and vehement, but he contented himself at the end with repeating the alienists’ arguments, supporting his own on the indisputable authority and celebrity of Professor Cave.

The illustrious Cabrolle rose in his turn. He was calm; he nearly smiled, as though at a task too easy, and from the first, his powerful and persuasive way of speaking vibrated the window-glass and the heartstrings of the jurors. He repeated one by one the arguments of accusation, to annihilate each, as in a game. He posed the question, what could have motivated this crime, if madness were not itself the explanation? He invoked judicial error, those innocents condemned after the testimony of forensic specialists, whom other specialists had later contradicted. He recalled various celebrated cases wherein the official science was obviously gone far afield. He asked Professor Cave, as a man of honor, if he had never made a bad diagnosis in his entire career, and if he could swear that every mad person conducted himself strictly in the fashion observed, and during sleep? He closed with the warning, to the dozen honest men, to take pity, to judge not by law alone, this unfortunate sufferer who was in their presence; who had been held for eleven months under orders amounting to ruthless torture, where only enlightened care might have reclaimed him, and at last he bade the jurors regard this ragged human being, and pronounce, in their souls and consciences, if he were truly a “remarkable man”, who had come to their notice, and who for so long, without an ally, had accomplished this superhuman tour de force, played at madness without a second’s failing in the perfection of so impossible a role?

Throughout, the accused sat drooling on himself.

The case was given to the jury for deliberation. He was returned to hear the verdict, held upright by the sturdy hands of the court officers. Silence fell, and the presiding judge spoke.

Jean Billy was acquitted, as irresponsible. All eyes were fixed on him. They first saw him flex a little, then his eyes grew wide, intense and lively; a flow of blood and delirious joy flushed his face, blank and stupid for so many months…

And transfigured, he shouted: “Holy Name of God! I knew I could fool them!”


As he was taken by a fury genuinely mad, on hearing the sentence pronounced, it needed at least six men to tie him up and carry him to the cell he never left again.












The Faker

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(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)



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