The Imposter · Interrogation

Plus The Bettencourt Affair and last-minute gift ideas


From late November 2012, it’s my review of The Imposter, a documentary and story I have been periodically ensorcelled by since reading Grann’s original New Yorker piece.

Though [Bourdin] emphasized his cunning, he acknowledged what any con man knows but rarely admits: it is not that hard to fool people. People have basic expectations of others' behavior and are rarely on guard for someone to subvert them. By playing on some primal need — vanity, greed, loneliness — men like Bourdin make their mark further suspend disbelief. As a result, most cons are filled with logical inconsistencies, even absurdities, which seem humiliatingly obvious after the fact. — David Grann, "The Chameleon,The New Yorker, 11 August 2008

The crime

Serial chameleon Frédéric Bourdin inhabits the identity of a missing Texan kid in 1997. Busted again after a few months, he claims that he's hardly the biggest criminal in the situation.

The story

I've always found that fascinating, the willingness of the average person to trust others. It's partly neurobiology, no doubt, the same way the optic nerve will complete visual patterns with parts missing; it's one way in which we order the world, assuming that most things are as they appear. When I worked as a records clerk, chasing down current addresses and career information for the alumnae office, I saw a variation on it every day — that if you act as though you have the right to information, you will usually get that information, no questions asked. People want you to know things, want you to know them. It's a little flower of hope that this is, and is usually, true.

But now and again a weed gets a foothold, and that's a subset of true crime that fascinates me — the "identity con," I suppose you might call it. Sometimes, as in the case of James Hogue, it's identity creation; other times, it's identity conspiracy, a flimflam of hope, a case solved, all those Anastasia Romanovs and Charlie Lindberghs that used to surface years ago (recent episodes of American Horror Story cleverly traded on it).

And then you have the outright identity thefts, although it's hard to say what, if anything, is "outright" about Frédéric Bourdin, the subject of Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter. Bourdin, a serial imitator of homeless teens across Europe in the 1990s, stepped into the role of a lifetime — and across the line between "grifty" and "monstrous" — in 1997, when he decided to imitate an American teen who had gone missing three years earlier.

Or did he?

Bourdin imitated Nicholas Barclay, this we know. He's admitted it, and was sentenced to six years for the various fraudulent activities surrounding it. What's interesting about the case isn't just that Bourdin did it, or how he did it, or that he'd done it so many times before, or that he did it again after the U.S. deported him back to France, although seeing that particular compulsion in action is both disturbing and captivating. It's that Nicholas Barclay's family let him do it — may have wanted him, or someone anyway, to do it. The "humiliatingly obvious" discrepancies Nicholas's mother and sister almost defiantly refused to see, the obvious dye job, the different eye color, the accent he shouldn't have lost after only three years away, the Peter Straubian abduction tale, at first seem like the understandable blindness to the truth of a family desperately hoping to reunite with a lost son and brother.

As the facts and months accumulate, though, it starts to seem more like they want the rest of the world to buy the reunion…like they knew all along he wasn't Nicholas, because they knew all along Nicholas wasn't "missing," exactly. If Bourdin manipulated Nicholas's family into accepting him wholeheartedly as their own, yes, he's a monster. But if they knew from the get that he was a French man with an agenda, it's far less clear who the monster is, or if there's just one.

The case first came to my attention in the excellent Grann piece linked above, which goes into more detail than the film about the murky family connections, as well Bourdin's activities prior to 1997 — and I'd recommend pairing them. The Imposter is prosaic on the filmmaking level, but more recent, and among the cloo-channel-esque reenactments, you'll find story just in the faces of Bourdin and Nicholas's family. You could call Layton's pointed holds at the end of interview segments tricksy, but I thought it was effective. The media complement each other, and the story, wonderfully. — SDB

And here’s a book review from last year, if you’re looking for scam-adjacent content for that true-crime lover in your holiday life (or for yourself!).

Tom Sancton on a nonagenarian heiress, her protege, and the accusations of elder abuse that led to a massive scandal…

The crime

Welllll, that's the thing: nobody can agree whether a crime occurred. Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the multi-gazillion-dollar L'Oréal fortune, met artiste and It Boy François-Marie Banier in the late 1980s, when he was assigned to photograph her for a French magazine. They became friends...and then perhaps more, although Banier is gay and Bettencourt swears there was no sexual or romantic involvement. They did act like soulmates, though, sending each other swoony letters and faxes across a decades-spanning age difference...and Bettencourt began showering him with gifts, not trinkets but priceless artworks, multi-million-Euro life-insurance policies, even an apartment.

Bettencourt's only child, Françoise, got suspicious of both the lucre and Banier's possible role in her estrangement from her mother, and filed a lawsuit claiming Banier had taken advantage of her mother's dementia to fleece her for nearly a billion dollars. Bettencourt, despite mounting evidence that she didn't always know where she was or who else was present, firmly maintained that she'd given Banier the gifts in sound mind, and refused court-ordered examinations to settle the matter.

Then the countersuits started...and the illegal taping of "Madame" by the butler...and the prosecution of Bettencourt's accountant...and the bribery allegations reaching all the way up to then-President Sarkozy. And you'd better believe there's some Nazi shit in there too, because of course there is.

The story

The Bettencourt Affair: The World's Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris began its life, I believe, as a Vanity Fair article almost a decade ago, and Tom Sancton's prose is exactly the sort of almost-breathless accounting (as it were) of fractures and feuds amongst the so-rich-you've-never-heard-of-them that has always made the mag's crime coverage so appealing, at least to this gossipy plebe. Alas, many of the VF pieces that become books should have stayed at longform mag length; they get weighed down with superfluous overresearch and obviously padded sidebars on irrelevant cousins.

Sancton's book is an exception. Occasionally there's a foray into who-cares territory, as when he offers a pointless analysis of Françoise's piano-playing and how it illustrates Edmund Wilson's assertions about suffering and art; in other places, he strains for lyricism at too much length, as in his detailed depiction of a search warrant being served. But compared to the majority of books in the genre, which have readers wondering why entire chapters weren't cut, almost all of Sancton's book is briskly written and serves the central story. Bettencourt's origin story and her family's cozy relationship with the Vichy government are their own scandal, and relate to the one under discussion. Sancton's also very good at keeping a story with multiple François(e)s straight, and at transitioning it from the foibles-of-the-super-wealthy story it begins as into a look at dirty money and political influence. (One quotation from p. 296 attempts to put the depth of Sarkozy and his government's compromise into context, but under current political circumstances doesn't quite hit: "'In America, this would be a scandal. A sitting president who intervenes and violates judicial secrecy for the benefit of one party in a strictly private matter would never get away with it. He'd be gone, resigned, game over.'" Wellllll maybe back in the day?)

The book is quite good, but it isn't quite great, because for all of Sancton's careful structuring and effective build of the story over many decades, The Bettencourt Affair suffers somewhat from his never taking a position on what "really" happened. In his defense, events kind of kept unfolding until the minute the thing went into galleys (and Bettencourt died very shortly after publication), so it's possible that a position isn't something he had the luxury of exploring on the publisher's timeline, and of course he doesn't want to decide ahead of time and write from there -- but Sancton's principal access seems to have been to Banier, which colors the perspective...and yet, despite behavior and parenting on Bettencourt's part that is brusque at best, Sancton seems reluctant to indict her in his writing. "Objectivity," if such a thing exists, is important to strive for in reported work, but when you have words like "affair" and "scandal" in your title and you're writing for a VF audience, you can't abstain entirely from a point of view.

Overall, though, it's a good sit: it reads fast, and occasions the fun kind of eye-rolling at the pettiness writ large of gazillionaire families. If you see it in paperback, grab it. — SDB

One day, I’ll zero out that pile of New Yorkers in the living room; until then, you’re getting slightly delayed notice of worthwhile longreads — starting with “The Burn List.” Raffi Khatchadourian’s lengthy overview of cybersecurity firm Tiversa, which “dominated an emerging online market—before it was accused of fraud, extortion, and manipulating the federal government,” is the best kind of NYer crime content. It’s smoothly but energetically written, it familiarizes readers with a subject we might not know much about in a process-y but accessible way…and said subject, and alleged crime, are ambiguous enough to tickle a certain something in true-crime consumers who are captivated by the we’ll-never-know aspect of a case. Worth burning one of your free monthly reads for. — SDB

CBS All Access’s Interrogation gets drop date. I vaguely recall this project from when it was first announced; I also vaguely recall thinking that either this would be a game-changing take on crime narrative, or a misbegotten platypus like Push, Nevada (that’s right, I just made a Push, Nevada reference; AMA!).

The latest press release from CBS on the show hasn’t changed my non-hot take on its prospects, but we’ll find out February 6. In case you’d forgotten the deets, here’s some key points from CBS’s press release:

With all episodes dropping at once, viewers will see the day of the crime and then follow the evidence like a cold case detective, abandon the linear narrative and determine their own investigative path by watching the episodes leading up to the finale in any order.

INTERROGATION is based on a case that spans more than 20 years, in which a young man was charged and convicted of brutally murdering his mother. After being sentenced to life in prison, he continued to fight to prove his innocence. Each episode is structured around interrogations informed by real police case files. Sarsgaard plays David Russell, the lead detective on the case; Gallner plays the accused, Eric Fisher; Strathairn plays Eric’s father, Henry Fisher; and D’Onofrio plays Ian Lynch, an Internal Affairs officer who ends up becoming Eric Fisher’s biggest ally.

This is a pretty impressive thespian line-up, but the one that gives it that shot of interest for me is Gallner, aka Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas of Veronica Mars. Will you guys grab a subscription to CBS All Access for this one, if you don’t have it already? Or are you going to wait for me to review it? — SDB

Out of gift ideas? The price for a full subscription to this newsletter is back up to $55 per year, which is still a pretty good deal for five days a week of true crime that’s worth your time (or not). AND it’s instant grat! Plus, if we’ve got two thousand paid subscribers by August of 2020, we’re covering the Theranos trial in person, so join the B.E. crew (or make your friends and fam do it) and send us to court!

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Wednesday on Best Evidence: It’s The Blotter Presents 125 with Jeb Lund! We’re talking Truth Be Told and the “United States” episode Dark Tourist (featuring Dahmer tours and Dealey Plaza).

And hey…if you’ve got a property you’re excited about that’s on the calendar for 2020, I’m doing an episode about that. Let me hear from you! Contact info is below; call or @ any time.

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