Friday, May 31, 2013

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris
by David King
Crown Publishers, Sept. 2011

Too often, true crime books are merely lascivious, wallowing in each grisly detail. Death in the City of Light, David Kingʼs riveting account of French serial killer Dr. Marcel Petiot, transcends this in a powerful account of evil writ small and large. As he tracks Petiot through a seven month investigation and often farcical trial, King lingers less on the macabre details and more on a portrait of a city dogged by terror and mired in corruption, ultimately depicting Petiot as a “self-appointed executioner for Hitler,
gassing, butchering, and burning his victims in his own private death camp.”

This is Kingʼs first stab at true crime, and he rises admirably to the challenge. The Petiot case is full of stranger-than-fiction elements that could easily succumb to cheap melodrama, but King steers the reader through the investigation with precise, spare language. He was given access to the entire Petiot dossier, classified since 1946, and he uses the new detail to great advantage, especially the vivid accounts of several of the participants, including Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, the real life inspiration for Georges Simenonʼs Inspector Maigret.

The book opens with a legitimately gruesome description of the “murder house” in the fashionable 16th-arrondissement. Neighbors reported a foul smoke pouring forth from the chimney, and when police entered, they found piles of bones, rotting body parts, and a bizarre thick-walled, triangular room festooned with bizarre hooks, chains, and a concealed peephole. The propertyʼs owner, Dr. Petiot, had a history of crimes (both proven and alleged) and mental instability that would make a modern day profiler (or even a casual viewer of Criminal Minds) blanch. Yet he was also charming enough to win a mayoral election at age thirty, and to spend his trial joking and signing autographs.

Petiotʼs first victims may have been patients who could have implicated the doctor in drug-related investigations, but his murderous métier evolved into a false “escape” service for Jews and others desperate to flee the city. Police eventually found 49 suitcases at an accomplice’s house, filled with almost 2000 personal items collected from his victims. The story is full of almost unbelievable (but irresistibly Gallic) details: the murdererʼs penchant for art auctions, flashily-dressed gangsters, a red-haired
femme fatale, and a pivotal moment in court resting on the fabric used by a certain haberdasher.

Kingʼs greatest strength is his ability to show how occupied Paris so perfectly served
Petiotʼs dark deeds. People were vanishing from the city in droves, by flight or arrest.
The police were subordinate to the French Gestapo, and gangsters thriving in
the chaos ran wild. In short, it was the perfect environment for a psychopathic killer to
work undetected. From the very beginning, inspectors were cautious, unsure whether
this killer was an agent of the Gestapo, a member of the Resistance (Petiotʼs own
claim), or simple a sadist and opportunist. Throughout the trial, Petiot continued to take
advantage of the cynicism and anxiety as Paris struggled to come to terms with itself
post-Liberation.  Paris was full of people of people who claimed to have served in the Resistance, and the frustration and rage people felt towards the state police helped Petiot position himself as a dapper and bold assassin for the cause.

King ably describes the trial, an affair that would have made a cable news network swoon with delight: the piles of mysterious luggage brought into the courtroom, weighing more than one ton; the accused leaving the prisoner’s box to sign autographs, an attorney and acknowledged Resistance fighter nearly coming to blows with Petiot during a cross-examination.  Likewise, the dogged work by military security Lieutenants Jacques Yonnet and Albert Brouard to untangle and discredit Petiot’s claims of Resistance work is described with meticulous detail, like a sort of historian’s CSI.  When the lieutenants issue their scathing denunciation of Petiot’s claims, it is both triumphant and a relief.

There are a few moments early in the narrative where Kingʼs focus falters a bit; in
particular, he spends a bit of time tracking Sartre and Camus in a juxtaposition that
never quite pays off. But his detailed, lucid account of the manhunt and the trial is
gripping, and his historical snapshots powerfully evoke both the atmosphere and the
stakes.  By the bookʼs end, Petiot’s story is repulsive but almost feels inevitable. As Jack the Ripper is iconic of the seamy underside of proper Victorian England, Petiotʼs shadowy and opportunistic sadism feels like an intrinsic part of the City of Lightʼs darkest days.

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