Monday, October 10, 2011

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, by David King

Crown Publishing, 2011
432 pp.

"The journeys begin and end at the rue Le Sueur."

First, a thank you to Crown for the ARC of this book, and an apology for taking so long to get to it.    This one definitely will get a second read and I'm buying a copy, so if anyone reading this wants the ARC gratis, it's yours. Be the first to leave a comment and it will be on its way to you this week.

On March 11, 1944, the air on the rue Le Sueur was filled with thick black smoke, smelling of "burnt caramel, burnt rubber, or a burnt roast of poor quality." The smoke had been coming out of a townhouse at number 21, and had been going for five days, but on that day, the heat made the smoke worse than it had ever been.  When firemen came to investigate, they came upon a horrible sight in the basement, to which  they had traced the origins of the smell.  They found piles of bones, arms and legs strewn about, and an overwhelming odor of decomposing and burnt flesh. But there were even more horrors in store for Georges-Victor Massu, the Commissiare of the Brigade Criminelle when he arrived -- the townhouse's courtyard hid a pit filled with "decomposing bodies of varying stages," whose numbers the Commissaire could only guess at.  One of the people joining the crowd before Massu's arrival identified himself as the owner's brother, and entered into a strange conversation with  the patrolmen at the scene:

" 'Are you good Frenchmen?' the man asked.
'What kind of question is that?'
'Then listen carefully. What you see there are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.' Discreetly he asked if the authorities had been notified...
'That's a serious mistake,' the man said. 'My life is at stake, as are the the lives of several of my friends who serve our cause'."

He went on to say that he was the leader of an organization in the French Resistance, that he had three hundred secret files and identification cards of other members of the Resistance, and that he needed to destroy them before the Germans could get them. Rather than detaining the man, the patrolman let him go.  Later, when he saw a picture of the owner of 21 rue Le Sueur, he was shocked to discover that this was the man he had talking to all along.  But that March night, the man vanished into the darkness, and became the focus of a manhunt that took several bizarre twists and turns as it progressed.

Death in the City of Light is the story of one of the most abominable yet unknown (at least to me) serial killers of the twentieth century, Dr. Marcel Petiot, a predator in every sense of the word. Some years prior to the discoveries at rue Le Sueur, authorities had already dealt with Petiot, who had been involved in the narcotics trade and fraud, and he came up on their radar when people associated with him began disappearing.  He had served as a mayor and a coroner, his careers ending in scandal.  Claiming to be part of a Resistance group that helped people leave Paris, Petiot had offered his services, at a rather hefty cost,  to assist Jews (among others) to get out of Paris, into France's Free Zone, and ultimately out of the country.  His activities captured the attention of two sections of the  Gestapo:  military security (IV E-3) got involved because of the escape of German soliders who would rather desert than face the possibility of  going to the Eastern Front, and the section involved in the Final Solution (B IV) was also interested due to the escape of Jews from Paris.   He was ultimately was picked up during a sting operation,  tortured and imprisoned by the Gestapo, but  strangely, via a ransom paid by this brother, Petiot was released from Gestapo custody just two short months prior to the discovery at rue Le Sueur.  Ransoming prisoners of the Third Reich was nothing new; the author discusses how even Jews deemed "low security risks" could be ransomed at the right price, but considering that two divisions of the Gestapo were investigating Petiot's organization, and the nature of his crimes, the question of why he was released is a big one, and serves as part of the foundation for the major question posed in this book:  who did Petiot really work for? Was he, as he claimed, a member of the French Resistance, helping people to their freedom and helping "fellow patriots escape the vengeance of the Germans,"  or was he actually working for the Gestapo? Or did he work for neither -- was there something else going on? The author lays out the probabilities for each scenario and ultimately comes up with his own conclusions. 

The author has done some very credible research, even gaining unprecedented access to police archives and files about Petiot that still remain classified.  His coverage of this most evil man is set against the backdrop of Paris during the Nazi Occupation, and includes background about the political and cultural life of Paris, the criminal underground of the city, and the hardships endured by Parisians during that time. He also takes the reader through the Liberation of Paris and the aftereffects of arrests, trials and executions of persons known to be collaborators.  The most active part of the case and the book as well, however,  is Petiot's trial, a lively judicial farce that allowed the defendant to hurl insults, allegations against the prosecutor, the civil attorneys, the police and witnesses and to make his own case through even the most damning of testimony while trying to gain sympathy from audience.  His defense: he killed only "Germans, notorious collaborators, Gestapo and agents provocateurs," but then how does one explain away a nine-year old Jewish child? The Epilogue allows King the opportunity to put forth his own theories about the case, and he uses one obscure but amazing source in particular from a survivor of the escape network as a basis for part of his hypothesis.

While most of the focus is naturally on Petiot, King's work also follows the work and career of Georges-Victor Massu, who was a friend of Georges Simenon and part of a composite model for Simenon's character Maigret.  After working so hard on the case, Massu was ultimately arrested as a collaborator after the liberation of Paris and never got the opportunity to question Petiot, even though he'd laid most of the groundwork for his arrest.  The evidence uncovered by this man should have led to an open-and-shut case at trial; sadly, because of legal maneuverings, Petiot's outbursts and other factors, Massu's hard work was largely glossed over, important points were missed or not picked up during questioning, and as the trial progressed, it was a toss up as to whether Petiot would walk or be found guilty. The forensics specialists' work is also among the pleasures of this book.

Death in the City of Light is an interesting book that presents a series of complex questions that may never be completely answered, but King has done a wonderful job tying together several threads of detail to produce a story that is so bizarre and so twisted that it could only be real. I highly recommend it. I'm not big on true crime, but this is so different than anything I've read, and it appeals to the historian in me.

I've noticed in several reviews that people have compared this book to Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, but don't even go there, and it's really unfair to make that comparison.  People have also written that the book was boring and unengaging; I found it to be the opposite. My only problem with this book is that in the ARC there are no maps or photos, and these would have been very helpful.  But all in all, what a bizarre case this was -- and King's writing, his attention to detail and his ability to sift through untold hours of research made this an interesting and very enjoyable read.


  1. Thanks for this excellent review. I do enjoy well-written true crime, so I'm glad to know about this one. I'm especially intrigued because I know very little about this case. Sounds like a really worthwhile read.

  2. You're welcome! Funny thing -- this morning I was perusing other books dealing with Petiot, and on Paperback Swap, someone had a 2008 book available called "The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot." So I grabbed it, and in an email I thanked her for sharing the book and asked if she'd read Death in the City of Light. She emailed back a no, but made the comment that "this guy was a real nut job to say the least."

    If you want my copy, let me know!

  3. It sound very good to me and it is an exceelent review Nacy. Will try to find it. Thanks.

  4. I mean it sounds very good.

  5. Thanks, Jose-Ignacio. You are more than welcome to my copy if Margot doesn't want it.

  6. I also enjoyed this book very much.

    1. The guy was positively insane, if you ask me! Thank you for your comment.