Historians often sweat through hours of labor digging out obscure records and information, but sometimes it pays just to be lucky.
Lexington writer David King knows about that. In January, he was at the Archives de la Prefecture de Police in Paris, hoping to examine records of a notorious 1940s murder case. Like other authors before him, however, King was told non. The files were sealed.
But then ...
"The archivist invited me to see his boss," King said. "I spoke with her; she asked what I was doing, why I wanted to see the records. At the end of the meeting, she suddenly said, 'Would you like to have them?'"
The next morning, King was handed the 60-year-old records: a treasure trove of official case files, witness interview transcripts, forensic findings and court reports. The material — which no writer had seen before — provided illuminating details for King's latest book: Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, published in September by Random House.
Now drawing enthusiastic reviews — in his review for the Herald-Leader, Peter Baniak called it "a page-turning, detective/manhunt/courtroom drama" — the book traces the strange case of Dr. Marcel Petiot, thought to have slaughtered more than 60 people during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. Petiot ran a fake escape network, offering to smuggle Jews and others to safety, only to rob and kill them.
"The police records had been closed since the war; other historians had tried to get to them and failed," King said. "I still have no idea why the woman let me see them. But it probably was the most incredible experience I've had as a historian."
For King, those French records were one in a series of fortuitous finds. The Woodford County native and University of Kentucky graduate has earned a growing reputation in the past few years for producing readable, sometimes quirky, but always meticulously researched books about historical events.
His first, 2002's Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World, described Olof Rudbeck, an obscure 17th-century Swedish inventor and renaissance man who thought the mythical continent of Atlantis was in Sweden.
King followed that in 2008 with Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, a vivid account of behind-the-scenes scheming, shenanigans and romantic entanglements among kings, queens and ambassadors at an Austrian peace conference called to redraw European boundaries after Napoleon's defeat.
King, 41, repeatedly has hit gold by presenting familiar historical events in a new light or by revealing obscure figures, always recognizing a good story when he found one. He discovered Petiot's story, for example, in a spy memoir he found at the Friends of the Lexington Public Library bookstore.
"A lot of them were great stories that for some reason had just been set aside," King said. "The Vienna story, for example, was so outrageous that you could not have written it as fiction. No one would have believed it.
"I like to tell stories. I try to put myself in the place of these people, get a perspective on what happened and what I might do in their situation, and weave it all into the historical record. I try to make it a story."
Producing the stories, however, takes arduous work. King starts each project by digesting every available written record, memoir, diary or news clipping on the subject. (He prepared for the Atlantis book by reading every word of a 2,500-page Rudbeck manuscript. Finding the human side of stories and their fine details — such as King's vivid description of the creepy rooms where Petiot committed his crimes — takes even more time. King's ability to read French, Swedish and several other languages helps.
"Raymond Betts, one of my favorite UK professors, said the hardest thing in biography was finding out what a person's favorite color was or what they had for breakfast," King said. "I just try to get it right and tell it the best way I can."
King's mother, Cheryl King, said she and his father, Van, always thought their son would do something creative.
"When he was growing up, we always had books everywhere: on the bookshelf, under the bed, in the garage," she said. "David loved to learn and was always creative. When he was about 12, I told my husband David would have a book in the bookstores some day."
King graduated from Woodford County High School, then earned a bachelor's degree in history at UK. He studied in Europe as a Fulbright scholar. He received a master's degree in history at Cambridge University in England, where he also played some baseball and tried his hand at cricket.
King then taught history at UK before becoming a full-time writer in 2005. It wasn't a career he'd planned on.
"I liked writing, but I always loved history best," he said. "I was interested in law school or maybe diplomacy, but I really wanted to teach history, and I did that.
"I taught at UK for five years, and it was great fun, except for grading papers. But then I got lucky with my first book."
That was the story of Rudbeck, "the Swedish Leonardo da Vinci," a character King heard about while taking an undergraduate class with UK honors professor John Greenway. King later researched Rudbeck while studying in Sweden, seeing Rudbeck's story as potential material for a dissertation. It was a Cambridge professor who suggested that Rudbeck might make a good book.
Intrigued, King called an agent, who immediately liked his idea. The resulting book came out in 2002 and has been was translated into several languages. King has been writing ever since.
UK history professor David Olster, who has known King since he showed up in one of Olster's undergraduate classes, sees King's success as only a prelude.
"David was one of the most imaginative students I've ever seen, and certainly one of those with the greatest initiative and inner motivation," Olster said. "Put those together and you get someone who's going to accomplish great things.
"David has a naturalness of expression that translates into an extraordinary ability to tell a story, and ultimately history is the telling of a story. He also happens to be one of the most modest, self-effacing people you'll meet."
When King isn't writing, he likes to spend time with his wife, Sara, and their children, Julia, 7, and Max, 4. He also enjoys martial arts.
He isn't working on a book now but says he'll "figure out something."
"I have a couple of ideas I'm playing with. I love doing the research. I've never been all that crazy about the money. It's fun just spending the day reading and learning about things you like."