Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary: Paris, 1944, rue Le Sueur. A thick, strange smelling smoke emanating from the house next door prompted neighbors to call the police. When no one answered, police broke in and discovered a truly chilling scene: dismembered body parts being burned, what appeared to be a torture chamber, and a pit filled with a mixture of body parts from countless people. The owner of the building was soon identified as Dr. Marcel Petiot, a wealthy physician who quickly disappeared upon the discovery of this gruesome crime. What follows is a hunt for this killer and the motives he could have for killing. Was he a member of the Resistance movement? Or perhaps working for the Gestapo? Police Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu must unravel the mystery and identities of the many victims, and find Petiot before he disappears in the upheaval of War World II.
Since I ended 2011 with a paranormal note, I decided to start the year off with a cheery, light-hearted romp through true crime. Nothing says “happy new year!” like 350 pages of horrifying and heartbreaking murders that leave you with literal chills and a strong desire to clutch your loved ones close.
The sickening details aside, this book is fascinating. Petiot is obviously the person holding the plot together, but this book is far more than a look at a serial killer. It examines the murders in context, in a Paris occupied by Nazis, populated with people desperate to get out and with those looking to exploit the changing cityscape. The forces at play make it even more engrossing – the Gestapo gets involved, and questions of which side Petiot worked for are tangled up in the case almost immediately.
The way King presents the story makes it highly readable. He brings together disparate parts into a really comprehensive portrait of the serial killer Petiot, the lives he forever changed, and the city of Paris. Petiot is a fascinating person, in the most horrible way. He used many aliases, charmed countless women, and many people referred to him as the “People’s Doctor.” This stemmed from his generosity towards the poor and helping those in need. Yet he killed more than 30 people (which is a low estimate) and most likely tortured them first. Trying to understand the whys and hows of this case was made easier by King’s meticulous and balanced telling. King never forces any of the connections, and clearly points out the unanswered questions and gaps left by the case.
The heartbreaking parts came when you learned about the people who were murdered. The way they were tricked into thinking this man, the People’s Doctor, could be trusted, the hope they invested in him and his promises, left me with a sense of bottomless despair that a human being could ever be so cruel. The evils done by this man are so personal that it’s shocking, even when it’s juxtaposed against WWII. I appreciated how King didn’t play on sentimentality; he laid out the facts as he could best reconstruct them. Yet he used certain images to convey the loss – the most effective was the sheer amount of luggage found on Petiot’s properties. Stacks and stacks of it, filled with the personal belongings of his victims. There is a photograph of over 50 suitcases piled up in the courtroom as evidence, which to me was a physical manifestation of the dreams left behind by the dead.
Upon reading this book, it made me realize I had a fairly large gap in my timeline of Paris. My mental image skipped from the glorious ‘20s, with the likes of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso creating great works and mingling at parties, to post-liberation Paris, with parades and the inspiring speech of Charles de Gaulle. Occupied Paris was a base outline in my head, with no real detail. King recreated the city for me, writing about those who stayed behind and coexisted in the city with the German occupiers. An interesting thread running throughout the book was the inclusion of the left over literary crowd, like Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir. King wrote about their activities and developing philosophies, contrasting starkly with the actions of Petiot. It helped again with the context, as the killings weren’t happening in a bubble.
One of the problems with the narrative was that so much had to be included to make it comprehensive. There were so many French and German names, places and streets and victims. It’s very hard to keep track of all that, so maybe the addition of a map with important locations or some images of the main people involved would have been really helpful. Also, sometimes King drops a narrative thread abruptly, and doesn’t pick it up again for too long, at which point my brain doesn’t remember the person he is trying to refer to. My biggest complaint has to do with Commissaire Massu. His investigation holds the story together, and you learn to rely on him as the reader. Then, due to an unfortunate event, he is no longer in charge of the investigation. It really threw me off balance, and I expected to hear more from him before the end. The way King dealt with his story was not satisfactory in the least.
King really strives to capture the changing zeitgeist of Paris. The murders occurred during the occupation, but were not discovered until several months before the liberation. The question of Petiot’s activities were tied to the Occupation, it all had to be added in order to make the story make sense. The trial, happening after the liberation, showed the scars the war left on the city. One of the lines that struck me was: “one of the trial’s low points was when Dupin [a prosecutor] protested that ‘human life is sacred’ and the audience laughed.” Knowing of the genocide, the many soldiers killed, the sheer scope of death represented by the war, the statement “life is sacred” seemed ludicrous to the people of Paris. Their laughter chilled me almost as much as the murders.
-Balanced and thorough look at a heinous, high-emotion crime spree
-Recreates Paris, capturing many facets to the city
-So many characters, needed more help from the author to keep them straight
-The Epilogue – cannot talk about it without spoilers. But know this – HUGE, GLARING THING LEFT OUT
-Narrative is sometimes messy
Death in the City of Light was a sometimes difficult read, in that working through the horrors committed by Petiot was draining. Hearing the stories of the people murdered by this man was also hard, especially once you understand how he lured most of his victims in. You might be wondering why you should put yourself through such an experience. To me, it was worth understanding not only this man but the city he terrorized. Seeing the real effects of war on a city always portrayed as nothing but pure romance and beauty was both enlightening and chilling.