Book Review: Death in the City of Light by David King

World War II is often seen as the last “good war,” a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. And there was plenty of evil to go around, not just in the Axis forces. Take, for example, the case of Marcel Petiot.

Petiot, a French physician, was convicted of murdering 26 people in Paris during World War II. As David King explores in unprecedented detail in Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, there were likely many more, perhaps up to 100. Petoit claimed he was a Resistance member who killed Germans and collaborators. Others, like the jury, said he used a phony escape network to lure people — and their money and valuables — into his deadly clutches.

One thing is clear. Petoit took advantage of the horrors of the war. As King points out, when thousands of people are disappearing and dying, who will think the disappearance of a couple people they know is the work of a serial murderer? And what person of Jewish descent is going to approach authorities in Nazi-controlled France to report a missing relative? After all, 33,000 Jews alone disappeared in France an 11-week period after Nazis began a mass round-up of Jews in mid-July 1942, some 13,000 in Paris in just 48 hours.

Although Death in the City of Light has somewhat of a choppy feel, it is thoroughly researched and told. King doesn’t present it as some sort of mystery tale. The reader fairly well knows from the outset that Petiot is involved or responsible. A preface sets the stage with police fortuitously discovering dismembered body parts and bones, as well as bodies in a in a coal stove and lime pit, in property owned by Petoit. The balance of the book is given over to the ensuing investigation, the search for Petoit, and his trial. With the investigation as a framework, King explores Petoit’s background, including him becoming a physician after getting a 100 percent mental disability rating following his service in World War I and potential murders prior to the war, as well as life in Nazi-occupied France, Petoit’s scheme and some of his victims.

Police concluded that, acting under the pseudonym “Dr. Eugène,” Petoit claimed to be part of a network that could help people escape France to Argentina by way of Spain. Not only did they pay varying sums of money, they were instructed to arrive at their ultimate rendezvous in Paris with their most valuable possessions packed in no more than two suitcases or sewn into their clothes. Police would later discover 49 pieces of luggage Petoit hid containing hundreds of items — but no money or valuables. Petoit had also remodeled the property in which the human remains were found, including the construction of a small triangular room with solid brick walls about 8.5 inches thick containing only eight iron hooks a false door on the walls and a concealed peephole. Petoit’s escape network cover was good enough that he was actually arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, although he was released after several months.

In contrast, Petoit claimed that as member of the resistance he headed up a cell of what he called the Fly-Tox network. The network’s main job, he said, was to track down and execute informers, although it also helped Frenchmen escape Paris. The method of finding these informers? Cell members would follow any civilian leaving Gestapo headquarters in Paris and, once in a secluded place, seize them with the Fly-Tox operative posing as a member of the German secret police. If the individual protested that he worked for the Germans, “he convicted himself,” Petoit told investigators. He claimed to have killed 63 “collabos” but that it was Fly-Tox’s escape operation that led to his arrest by the Gestapo. He said the bodies and remains police found in his building must have been dumped there while he was in Nazi custody.

The detail with which King explores the story is aided by the fact that not only did he have access to trial materials, including a stenographic record no one thought existed, but also the complete police dossier, which had been classified since the investigation began. The book struggles a bit because there were so many possibilities pursued during the investigation and, at times, the reader may become perhaps as befuddled as police were during the investigation. King also occasionally lapses into asides on what individuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Pablo Picasso were doing in Paris during this time. Although they add somewhat to setting the scene of Nazi-occupied Paris, their relationship to the story or its flow is inconsequential.

Death in the City of Light is a fair and in-depth examination of Petoit’s case. It also contains an intrinsic question of perspective. If the prosecutors were right, Petoit clearly was a serial killer. But if Petoit was killing people he believed to be informants, does the fact he did so in the course of a “good war” render him any less morally culpable?

If you start asking questions about everyone who dies, you’re going to be a very busy man.

David King, Death in the City of Light

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