“Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris” by David King
A few years ago, the book everyone was reading on the bus/train (at least in Chicago) was Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City,” a gripping non-fiction tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes and the havoc he was causing on the South Side during his heydey while Chicago’s attentions were focused on the World’s Fair. The book was a true story, and compellingly told, with a cast of characters that even a great fiction writer might not have been able to conjure.
David King’s “Death in the City of Light” attempts at – and succeeds in being – something similar. A non-fiction historical narrative drawn from real events and real records, King’s book moves the story of a serial killer from Chicago in development to Nazi-Occupied Paris, which is a terrifying landscape even without a murderer at large.
In 1944, a pile of mutilated and charred bodies were found in a house. It didn’t take police long to figure out their prime suspect – a doctor named Marcel Petiot – though finding him proved to be another battle. Long story short, Petiot promised Jewish families he would help them get to freedom, then killed them in terrible ways and took their possessions. He was found guilty of twenty-four murders, though in likelihood his victims were in the hundreds. Petiot insisted he was innocent of those crimes – though admitted to killing Germans and sympathizers. The world media went crazy over the story, the charismatic villain, and all the ghastly details, and the whole thing became a sensation.
“The Devil in the White City” carefully balanced the atrocities of it’s central killer with the cultural advancements taking place at the same time, and “Death in the City of Light” does that as well. While Petiot is on the loose and police are on the hunt, a couple of artists named Sartre, Camus, and Picasso (heard of them?) are producing art, writing, and premiering a new play – “No Exit.”
A great deal of this narrative details the lengthy circus of Petiot’s trial – which comes off as something you might see in a Hollywood film today. The accused is mouthy and temperamental, though with his endearing moments, as the prosecutors (a wacky bunch) swirl around trying to pin unidentifiable bodies on him. Petiot claims to have been a member of the Resistance, though can’t name a single person involved with him AND fails simple tests that any real member of the Resistance should be able to answer.
David King wisely keeps the focus on the events, and largely refrains from speculating on what may have happened to this person or that person. For the most part, the details speak for themselves. It’s a well compiled, and very well researched history, and one I enjoyed tremendously.
…and now I’ll stop reading books about serial killers until after the baby is born. The end.