Graeme Fife


No Common Assassin — a new novel, by Graeme Fife


1793. Revolutionary France. Terror by decree is the order of the day. The central committee in Paris is winnowing out traitors to the new regime across a land in the grip of suspicion and betrayal. The guillotines are hard at work. The daily toll of victims is relentless.

Twenty-four year old Charlotte Corday had intended to devote her life to charitable work as a nun in a convent in Normandy. What dark force drove this innocent young woman to travel to far-off Paris, a city of strangers, a hotbed of violent threat, there to purchase a butcher’s knife with which to murder the revolution’s most inflammatory leader in his bath at home, knowing that such an act would lead her inevitably to the scaffold and the guillotine?

It’s a journey fraught with fear and hesitation, but a journey of ruthless dedication to her bloody purpose.


In 2003, a short book about the father of chemistry, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, who named, but did not discover oxygen, was turned down by a publisher but one of the commissioning editors proposed, instead, that I might write a book about the French revolutionary Terror.

Lavoisier was the first scientist to enunciate the principle of fire: the necessary collision of fuel, oxygen and heat. Hitherto, fire had been imputed to the presence of a fugitive substance called phlogiston – from the Greek phlox for flame. No one had seen or identified phlogiston but even distinguished men of science held to belief in it. Lavoisier was sceptical. ‘Give me phlogiston,’ he said, ‘and I will weigh it.’

For reasons other than his scientific endeavours, Lavoisier went to the scaffold during the Terror, his plea to be given time to complete some work brushed off by the presiding judge at his trial with the scornful aside: ‘The revolution has no need of scientists.’

The worst excesses of the Terror which gripped France and, above all, Paris, between September 1793 and July 1794, were not the work of any individual, but Charlotte Corday believed that one man was to blame. Jean-Paul Marat, dilettante chemist and avowed enemy of Lavoisier, a mob orator – ‘The price of liberty is 10,000 heads’ – whipped up popular frenzy for the work of the guillotine in torrents of sanguinary rant in one of the revolutionary papers.

Corday, daughter of an impoverished aristocrat, born in Normandy, was intent on becoming a nun, until the revolution closed all religious houses. A firm believer in the lofty principles of the revolution at its beginning, she was revolted by Marat’s crazed tirades which amounted to a vile betrayal of all the revolution had stood for. Inspired by the stories of people who had sacrificed their own lives in the cause of freedom, she determined to kill Marat.

Thousands of lives would be saved and she would be hailed as a heroine of the young Republic, the true saviour of liberty, equality, fraternity, champion of a cowed and oppressed people.

Corday’s story intrigued me: a young woman of innocent and sheltered upbringing, of angelic disposition, intelligent, educated in the classics by an uncle, a priest, thwarted in her life’s chosen work by a revolution careening out of control. Intent on her sacred mission to save France, she travels to far-off Paris, with only one tenuous contact in a city beset with informers, secret police, casual denunciation, arrest and summary justice, knowing that if she succeeds in her plan, she will almost certainly die. A martyr for the cause? Deluded? Courageous? Baffling? Self-righteous? High-minded? Yes, all that.

I set out to find out who she was and, once again, stumbled into impasse. The reason, which I could not acknowledge for a long time, was simple: I wasn’t telling a story about a naïve young woman setting out on a preposterous mission, I was, in effect, merely regurgitating chronicle. There was fact in the history, but not truth. Historical report can only guess at what happens in the mind of those who make history. Only fiction can do that, by the trick of invention, and I was resolutely wedded to fact. It wouldn’t do. I’d been writing factual for too long to embrace what seemed to me to be lies, mendacity, fabrication, all inimical to fact.

The breakthrough came from a suggestion by a writer friend of mine, Linda Newbery, who suggested that I needed a character who observed Charlotte as she came to and arrived in Paris. For some time, I resisted the idea. I knew of none. I’d be making someone up. Well, what do you know? That’s fiction, isn’t it, making things up in the process of bringing a hidden truth to light?

The moment I relented and fastened on Paisac, a secret policeman – his name picked at random from a list of people guillotined – the door into fiction burst open wide and I was, at last, inside the hitherto locked chamber, lighting the illuminating candles, reading the messages in the crazed plaster on the peeling walls of that eighteenth-century house where I found myself, listening for the whispers behind the wainscot, meeting and describing the ghosts of the long vanished reappearing so as to lead me to where it all happened. Such fanciful evocation of the process is not entirely inaccurate. We are, after all, in the realm of bringing the dead to life.

In one hiatus of writing the final version of the novel – as ever, many drafts ditched and unvisited – I had to turn aside to write other things, for money. All through the time of my absence, I imagined Charlotte sitting by herself, in silence, in a room in the abbey where she had been a postulant nun, waiting patiently for me to come back, knock lightly on the door and go in so that we might resume our conversation. The image of that was so powerful, the press of it so cogent, that there was nothing fanciful about it. Charlotte Corday was present, once more, and ready to talk. And, in search of a better title than several with which I’d toyed, I set out for a walk, one afternoon, relying, with absolute conviction, that Charlotte would tell me. And she did.

Challenged by the Public Prosecutor at her trial with having demonstrated uncanny skill in driving the knife into exactly the right place to ensure that Marat could not survive her attack, implying that she was practised in such violence, she was outraged. In protest she cried out: ‘He takes me for a common murderer,’ the French word is assassin. It has a nastier ring to it than ours.

And there it was, my title, her gift.

No Common Assassin by Graeme Fife appears in e-book, Winter 2020-21.