"The Death Instinct: Self-Reflection of a Criminal Mastermind" Page One of Two
Book Review by Mike Rickard
French criminal Jacques Mesrine's memoir The Death Instinct provides a look into the mind of one of France's most notorious criminals from the 1960's and 70's. Written while Mesrine was imprisoned in France's maximum security prison La Sante, the book starts with his childhood in German occupied France during World War Two through the events that shaped him into a hardened criminal. Mesrine's voice is heard throughout his story as he tells of his criminal exploits as well as what seems like doomed attempts to reform. The book is a well-written blend of adventure (albeit criminal) and a deep, personal look into the thinking processes of an unabashed outlaw.
Once you begin reading about Jacques Mesrine's criminal exploits, it should come as no surprise that his life has been adapted into film twice. Mesrine's criminal exploits bordered on the superhuman as he became an escape artist and master of disguise, slipping through various countries in Europe and North America, defying the law, and waging war on what he saw as an oppressive criminal justice system.
In the end, Mesrine was destined to fail but his exploits would become legendary. The truth of crime is that the odds are always against you. The government (if interested) has an enormous resource pool to use against you whether it's manpower, technology, or society itself. To his credit, Mesrine was often able to commit crimes without getting caught. When he was caught, he escaped prison, usually remaining a fugitive for long periods of time. When he was locked up, Mesrine was horrified by the inhuman treatment of prisoners. This would anger him where he eventually declared war on the system. At one point, Mesrine and an accomplice attempted a mass break-out from the same Canadian prison he'd escaped from. In the end, Mesrine's exploits were too much for the French government to tolerate. Mesrine had escaped from prison too many times and embarrassed too many higher-ups. Mesrine cultivated an image as a modern-day Robin Hood and knew how to manipulate the press, granting an interview to a French newspaper where he shared his views on corruption and the need for prison reform. His attempt to kidnap one of the judges who had sentenced him and threats to France's Minister of Justice made him too dangerous to live. After an intense manhunt, France's Public Enemy One was assassinated by the police, ending his criminal career.
Mesrine's story appealed to me because he was a man who embraced his criminal career once he realized that there was no way he could reform. Reading his memoir, you see Mesrine was an outlaw even from his youth. Constant troubles with school and at home were warning signs. A stint in the French army saw Mesrine fighting in Algeria where he thrived on the violence around him. Despite enjoying the thrills of danger and winning a medal, Mesrine could not conform to the military structure and came home.
The author makes few attempts to elicit pity. Throughout the book, he reflects on the choices he makes. He worked hard when he had legitimate jobs but bad breaks seemed to follow him. While he shows regret for his failures at reforming, you can't help but feel Mesrine was relieved in the long run when his attempts to go straight failed. He feels destined to the criminal life.
This autobiography presents Mesrine at his best and worst. He doesn't downplay his domestic violence during his early marriages. At the same time, he doesn't seem too apologetic. There are women in his life that he treasured but his early wives were not. This did help him realize what he was looking for in a woman and when he found her, he had a lifelong commitment to her, through several imprisonments.
This book tells the story of a man who sincerely believes he is taking a stand against social inequality. Mesrine doesn't seem to look for pity but he does want to acknowledge the societal ills he witnessed. He looks down on his military experience in Algeria:
At the age of twenty, I had been sent by this society to wage war in the name of freedom, but they forgot to let me know that my actions would thwart the actions of others. In the name of what had society given me the right to kill men whom I didn't even know and who, in other circumstances, might have been my friends? Society had used me like a pawn, it had taken advantage of my youth, and my inexperience. It had created a false ideal in the name of "honor and homeland." It had drawn out my inner violence and exploited it to turn me into a good soldier, a good killer. I could see that same society was indifferent to the death of young guys who themselves killed for their country's sake. That society stuffed itself, burped, fucked, and slept undisturbed (43).
There has been much speculation about Mesrine's activities during the war. While he doesn't go into much detail on this period of his life, he makes it clear that it scarred him and he doesn't appreciate how society treated its young soldiers.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Mesrine's life is his take on personal relationships and how his first impressions of his lover Janou "Jane" Schneider, the woman who would be the love of his life:
I had just met The Woman with a capital W: the one who would become my faithful companion and who would totally share my fate. The one who would give me everything I expected from a gangster's wife. She would be the friend, the mistress, the accomplice. Sometimes you find your happiness in the gutter. A woman is born the day she becomes yours…You don't ask her, like a customs officer, to open the suitcase of her past with a "Do you have anything to declare?" (161).
The way Mesrine describes her, you feel his appreciation for Janou, good and bad. It's fascinating to read what draws him to certain women and what pushed him away from others.