Cannonball Read V: Death in the City of Light by David King
(Love to read? Well, get ready for the Pajiba Book Club! Join us on August 7 for a discussion of Shift by Hugh Howey. —mswas)
My husband first read this book and passed it along to me as he knows I enjoy true crime books. I suppose my dream to visit Paris one day also played a factor in his suggestion. I began the book with great interest as it tells the story of a prolific serial killer who took advantage of fear, hate and the threat of persecution in Nazi-occupied Paris during WWII to engage in a twisted scheme that stole the lives of at least 26 people (though some estimates put his victims at 150 or more).
Death in the City of Light, by David King, commences with a bang as black, putrid-smelling smoke billows from 21 rue le Sueur in the city’s 16th arrondissement. Neighbors call the police to report the neighborhood disturbance and before long a gruesome discovery is made: human remains burning in a coal stove in the basement. As police explore the residence, they uncover more horrifying evidence of murder, as well as torture. It is soon discovered that the owner of the residence is a Dr. Marcel Petiot.
Petiot was a highly charismatic physician who developed an elaborate scheme to purportedly help Jews, gangsters, members of the Resistance, and others looking to escape capture by the Nazis and those conspiring with them. He used his medical practice, and a supposed connection to a Resistance organization - Fly-Tox - to lure unwitting victims to rue le Sueur where they were told their journey to freedom and safety in Argentina would begin. Victims brought significant amounts of cash, jewelry, and other valuables to ensure their “safe passage.” Little did they know that the promise of safety was a path into darkness, terror and death.
The first three-fourths of the book move along at a good clip, providing details and insights about Petiot’s background, his victims, and events taking place in Paris during the time of the Nazi occupation. As has been found to be the case with many violent criminals, he had a history of “cruelty to small animals…and arson.” In his younger years, he was suspected in the disappearances of two women who were formerly his lovers, though no proof was ever found to convict him. He had a history of mental illness, but when evaluated by psychologists leading up to his trial, he was found to be sane and as such, able to face a jury. As one might imagine, Petiot did not act alone but had accomplices including his brother, Maurice, who provided support. Their degree of knowledge about what exactly took place at rue le Sueur is uncertain, though they must have had an inkling that something was awry given the volume of suitcases and clothing piling up, not to mention huge quantities of quicklime delivered to the residence, among other things.
As the trial begins, Petiot’s calculated nature and charisma are on full display as he frequently interjects commentary and rebuttals to the prosecution, drawing laughter and applause from onlookers in the courtroom. The trial is a circus of sorts and quite different from the type of legal proceedings we are accustomed to as Americans. Although our justice system certainly has its flaws, I must say I’d prefer to be placed on trial here than in 1940′s France. The helter-skelter nature of the trial made it a bit hard to follow as a reader and slowed my progress.
At the conclusion of the book, King does a solid job wrapping things up and ultimately, makes his own hypothesis of precisely how Petiot killed his victims. There have been many theories about this over the years as Petiot never confessed to his crimes. I found King’s ideas highly plausible and satisfying - especially as they were based on information gleaned from perhaps the only purported individual to escape Petiot’s death chamber.
There is much by which to be disturbed in the book, but what is most disconcerting is the fact that so many individuals - most of them Jews - put their trust in a man who promised to save them from a horrible fate at the hands of the Nazis, only to end up suffering a death similar to one they may have experienced at one of Hitler’s concentration camps. This quote from the trial sums up Petiot’s character best, when comparing him to naufrageurs (ship wreckers):
Cruel men set lanterns on the cliffs to attract sailors in distress and make them believe that it was a port or harbor. The confident sailors, unable to conceive of such black deeds, crashed onto the reefs, losing their lives and property. Those who deceived them, by pretending to save them, then enriched themselves with the spoils. Petiot is just that: the false rescuer, the false refuge.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)