Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris
The events of World War II are familiar to us, but of course bear repeating and continued examination. Scholars, artists and philosophers still grapple with the atrocities and devastation, and find new ways to celebrate the heroics. Historian David King’s latest work, DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT, is set in Nazi-occupied Paris and explores the tensions of the city both during the war and immediately afterward. But it does so in an original and compelling way --- through the story of a serial killer who preyed on the vulnerable and hunted.
"Blending true crime and history with a touch of sociology and philosophy, DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT is a well-written, horrifying and powerful book."
On March 11, 1944, the police were called to a house on rue Le Sueur in Paris’s 16th arrondissement because acrid smoke had been pouring from the chimney for five days. What the officers found was not a blazing fire in the fireplace but two coal stoves in the basement stuffed with charred human remains. Scattered about in the basement room were the decomposing and mutilated remains of several people as well. The house belonged to a local doctor, Marcel Petiot, and the discovery began an investigation into the murders of over 50 individuals, a manhunt for Petoit, and his eventual trial for 27 counts of murder.
Early school records and the accounts of neighbors portray Petiot as an intelligent but strange and disruptive child who tortured animals. He was arrested several times for theft as a young man and expelled from school. He enlisted in the French army in 1915, saw action in the trenches of the Western Front in 1916, and was wounded by a hand grenade in 1917. However, he was suspected of wounding himself. At the hospital, as he recovered, he was first diagnosed with a list of mental illness symptoms and characteristics that would persist through the rest of his life and come to have great significance during his trial. The medical team in 1917 stated that he showed “mental disequilibrium, neurasthenia, depression, melancholia, obsessions and phobias.”
Despite this and his repeated hospitalizations in various mental institutions in the next few years, Petiot managed to attend and graduate from medical school, set up a successful medical practice, and at 30 years old was even elected mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. But his medical work and his term as mayor were plagued with controversy, including unorthodox practices, malpractice, theft, and the death of patients.
In answer to the charges of murder, Petiot claimed he was working deep underground for the French Resistance. And though, at the trial, there were some witnesses who claimed it was possible, it was obvious that he took advantage of criminals fleeing from the Nazis or French gangsters, or Jews looking for safe transport out of France. Taking their money and sometimes even their furniture, Petiot killed those who came to him for help. The police could tie him to 27 specific victims but suspected him in the murder of as many as 150 people.
DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT is a fascinating look at a little-known serial killer, one that captured the imagination of a war-torn and shell-shocked city. King’s narrative is grisly and exciting, painting a vivid portrait of Paris in a frightening and confusing moment in history. From brutal gangsters to Nazi occupiers, from French philosophers to the Jewish community, King details life in occupied Paris and explains how Petiot operated in such pandemonium. Petiot’s biography, the investigation and the trial are all equally compelling components in the book. King’s attempt to contrast Petiot’s story with that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist work is sometimes clumsy, but it’s an interesting idea that readers will appreciate.
Blending true crime and history with a touch of sociology and philosophy, DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT is a well-written, horrifying and powerful book.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 27, 2011