As a journalist and a history buff, I've always been an admirer of the historical detective work of Erik Larson, and his skill at rendering the most base of human criminal acts against the backdrop of sometimes dazzling human historical achievements. His Devil in the White City melded the search for a deviant killer against the sparkle of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. In Thunderstruck, his tale of murder intersects with the history-changing race to invent wireless communication. Larson's most recent, In the Garden of Beasts, takes a different tack with its haunting rendering of Hitler's unfolding evil in 1930s Berlin, witnessed by American innocents — with the worst acts, we know, yet to come.
All are intimate portraits of the worst in humans, painted against a sweeping backdrop of history.
In Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, Lexington writer David King takes that model to an impressive new place.
At its heart, King's book is a page-turning, detective/manhunt/courtroom drama account of the murderous but charming Dr. Marcel Petiot, who was charged with committing 27 murders in Nazi-occupied Paris, who admitted to killing 63 people in the name of the French Resistance, and who probably murdered far more than that.
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King's narrative hooks the reader from the opening page — when police are called to Petiot's mansion in a fashionable Paris neighborhood to respond to reports of nauseating black smoke, only to discover a grisly landscape of body parts strewn about the basement, burning in the stove and decomposing in a back-yard pit filled with lime.
What unfolds from there is a furious tale of detective work to piece together what happened in Petiot's house at 21 rue Le Sueur. King manages to paint the house as a macabre character in its own right, with its lime pit, its triangular death chamber (with iron wall hooks, a false door and a viewing lens in the wall), and its smoking, oozing basement stove.
In chapter after chapter, with astounding attention to detail, King weaves together the tortured tale of Petiot's background and the individual stories of his apparent victims, many of them Jews fearing that they would be sent to Nazi concentration camps. They turn to Dr. Petiot, who claims to run an escape network that will help smuggle them to freedom and places like South America. He urges them to pack money, jewels and other valuables to prepare for their new lives abroad. For most, the journey goes no further than 21 rue Le Sueur. (Among the most jarring pieces of evidence at Petiot's trial was a huge stack of dozens of suitcases found in his possession, filled with clothing and other belongings of his victims.)
There's a seven-month manhunt for Petiot, then a trial that would have put even the most modern Casey Anthony-like legal spectacle to shame as a media circus. Petiot — intelligent, cool, manipulative and probably mad — uses the trial to challenge witnesses directly, play to the audience, curse, explode in anger and paint himself as a member of the Resistance who murdered Nazis, thugs and collaborators. The case incites such passions that at one point, the judge himself — before the trial has ended — is quoted in the press as calling Petiot "a demon, an unbelievable demon," "a terrifying monster" and "an appalling murderer."
The book was sparked when King, while preparing a lecture for a European history class at the University of Kentucky, where he taught before becoming a full-time writer, happened across a wartime memoir that described the Petiot case. From there, King — a Fulbright scholar whose previous books include Vienna, 1814 and Finding Atlantis — amassed a wealth of original source materials, including previously classified police files, newspaper accounts of the manhunt and trial, and other original documents about Petiot's case.
Death in the City of Light is a fascinating piece of historical non-fiction, and King tells it with the skill of the best police and courthouse beat reporters, mixed with the sweeping eye of a social historian.
All of the book's action is set against the backdrop of the occupation of Paris — the roundups of French Jews, the everyday terror of living under Nazi occupation, the Allied sweep after D-day and the exultant liberation of the City of Light. Dr. Petiot's tale is at times absorbed and certainly complicated by the Nazi horror that suffuses all aspects of life in 1944 Paris. Was Petiot a member of the French Resistance fighting against the invaders, or was he protected by members of the French Gestapo who helped further the cause of the Third Reich? On a grander scale, how does one come to grips with the acts of a serial killer in the midst of the Holocaust and systematic extermination of millions?
As King writes, "A predator had brutally exploited opportunities for gain, slaughtering society's most vulnerable and desperate people, the majority of them being Jews fleeing persecution. Dr. Petiot had become the self-appointed executioner for Hitler, gassing, butchering, and burning his victims in his own private death camp."