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

The soldier remembered one conversation about the morality of theft, Petiot arguing that it was perfectly natural:

 “How do you think that the great fortunes and colonies have been made? By theft, war, and conquest.”

“Then morality does not exist?”

“No,” Petiot answered, “it is the law of the jungle, always. Morality has been created for those who possess so that you do not retake the things gained from their own rapines.”

A few years ago, I came across the French film Doctor Petiot. I’d never heard of this man before, but after watching the film, I knew I’d never forget him. I also vowed that one day I’d read a non-fiction account of Petiot and his crimes. Well ‘one day’ arrived recently with the publication of David King’s well-researched book, Death in the City of Light.

Death in the City of Light begins on March 11, 1944 with a fire at a house located at 21 Rue Le Soeur. To the numerous bystanders it appeared as though the house’s chimney was on fire. The fire department arrived on the scene, broke in and discovered a slaughter house with dismembered body parts strewn about the floor. But this was nothing compared to the contents of the basement: personal items which clearly belonged to dozens of people, jars filled with human genitals, a lime pit which contained even more body parts, and an ad-hoc surgery area for dismemberment, scalping, and the removal of internal organs. Obviously French police had a serial killer on their hands. Or did they?

Although it seems fairly clear-cut that the human remains found at the house at La Rue de Soeur were the result of a maniac, things immediately became murky. The house belonged to French physician, Marcel Petiot, a collector of fine art, a very wealthy man who also had a reputation for helping the poor and drug addicts. Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu of the Homicide Squad was in charge of the case (for Simenon fans, Massu served as inspiration for Inspector Maigret), and initially he suspected that the police had stumbled on a house used by the Gestapo. The La Soeur house was just around the corner from a Gestapo building and this combined with the flagrant brutality and sheer number of the victims made Gestapo involvement likely:

A swastika had flown over the building across from Petiot’s property. The garage at No. 22 had been appropriated by Albert Speer’s Organization Todt, a vast supply company that supervised German construction projects in Occupied Europe.

If the murders at Petiot’s house had indeed been committed by the Gestapo, this created a very delicate situation for Massu since “the French police, of course, had no authority over the Gestapo or any of its activities.” I’ve often thought that wartime creates a fertile opportunity to mask other crimes, and the possibilities expands exponentially with the idea of an occupation. The author takes the time to clarify both Massu’s uncertainty and the chaos of the times–people were disappearing daily. Some were swallowed up by prison, others were tortured and tossed out dead somewhere, and still others were shipped off to concentration camps. Massu’s initial feeling that Petiot’s building was a Gestapo torture house did not pan out, however, for a couple of reasons. Massu was not warned off of the investigation by the Gestapo, and there were no Gestapo personnel on site when the grisly discovery was made. Moreover, shortly after the fire began, a mystery man appeared on a bicycle. Grabbing the attention of the patrolmen, the mystery man said that the corpses inside the house “are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.” 

As Massu tries to capture Petiot and identify some of the remains in the La Soeur house, the question of whether or not Petiot was indeed an agent of the Gestapo or a member of the Resistance emerges repeatedly. Author David King takes both possible scenarios and deconstructs the myths which surround both stories. Tracing Petiot’s chequered career, a portrait of Petiot begins to emerge–a troubled childhood, “signs of imbalance,” various stays in mental asylums, a political career fraught with scandal, kleptomania and corruption, and also various charges that he supplied a legion of drug addicts with a steady supply. And then there are the many instances of people disappearing when they stood in Petiot’s way….

Author David King follows Massu’s investigation as he tries to discover just who Petiot really was, and the investigation, naturally, in the absence of the culprit, expands into the identity of the victims. Evidence mounts that Petiot claimed to run an underground railroad for wealthy Jews who were attempting to escape the Nazis, but the bones in the basement argue that these travellers arrived at Petiot’s home but did not leave. The case was further complicated by the fact that Petiot had been arrested and held by the Gestapo for a considerable number of months, and also by the fact that the Gestapo had tried to infiltrate the underground escape route by sending a young Jewish man, whose freedom had been bought by his family through bribes, into Petiot’s operation. Naturally he disappeared. King also throughly investigates Petiot’s possible ties to the Gestapo and also his relationship with the Carlingue. It’s quite a task to unravel all the possibilities here, but King does his job masterfully–tying in Petiot with the darkest segments of the Paris underworld.

While I throughly enjoyed the visually stunning film Dr. Petiot, the complexities of this case were largely absent, and the film portrayed Petiot as a maniac, who treated his patients for free, while luring wealthy Jews to their doom. Death in the City of Light makes it clear that Petiot, a dangerous chameleon, did not have a philanthropic bone in his sick little body, and that so-called free treatment was just a way of embezzling the state. Furthermore, the book explores the intricacies of Petiot’s relationship with Henri Lafont and the Carlingue, and this link certainly explains just why Petiot operated so freely for so long.  A large portion of the book concentrates on Petiot’s trial, and at this point, Petiot, who’d managed to hide some of his egomaniacal tendencies, went wild in the spotlight–even making anti-semitic slips at some points. The trial turned into a media and social event with many spectators enjoying Petiot’s performance, and the testimony was spiced up considerably by the appearance of Rudolphina Kahan who “looked like a spy on the Orient Express.” Petiot seemed to nurse a crush on this woman who served as one of his many scouts. Petiot’s show-off performance was reminiscent of the trial of Lacenaire, and there are indeed some similarities between the two men–although Petiot’s murderous rampage far exceeded Lacenaire’s.

The film portayed Petiot as a ghoulish figure who rode his bicycle through the streets of Paris at night, and physically the dark rings under Petiot’s eyes reminded me of Cesare from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I was delighted to see this same connection made in the book by a journalist who attended the trial. Death in the City of Light includes many photographs, and Petiot really looks like a nut-job.

There are several names in the book: Adrian the Basque, Jo the Boxer, Henri Lafont, Pierre Bony, Francois the Corsican, Zé. I’m still looking for a book (in English) on the subject of the Carlingue, so if anyone knows a source, please let me know.

(my copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my kindle)

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12 Comments

Filed under King David, Non Fiction

12 responses to “Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King

  1. He’s one of the most famous serial killer in France.
    Now you have to read a book about Landru!!

  2. What an unusually uncanny story… I think that you are right, war was a great cover up for criminals. I find it especially gruesome that he killed Jews who were hoping to escape. I haven’t seen the movie but it sounds, Iike I would like it. War time Paris was a city of darkness, I can really imagine how crime flourished. Thanks for a fascinating review.

    • A jewish family would disappear, their friends would know they went through this underground route, so no one asked questions. It was only when Petiot came around and demanded their furniture or when belongings turned up, that people got suspicious, but then who would they tell their suspicions too?

      The film showed just jews as his victims, but a number of gangsters were murdered too.

  3. I did quite a bit of research today but all the titles I found were in French but I saw there are a few books in English on the French Secret Service and it seesm as if they did at least mention the French Gestapo. Maybe that’s a lead to follow?

  4. leroyhunter

    What an extraordinary story.
    “How’s the investigation going, Massu?”
    “Well, I can’t quite figure out if I’m dealing with a vicious, sadistic, predatory psychopath or if it’s just another day at the office for the Gestapo.”

    Sounds like King has done a great job teasing out the bizarre complexities involved. We do tend to think of the war period as being some kind of suspended animation for most human behaviour, in the face of the vast array of horror and suffering that made up daily life across the world. I wonder if anyone has written a social history of crime in Britain during 39-45, for example. I remember the attitude of Maclaren-Ross’s protagonist to the war in Of Love and Hunger, this great tide that sweeps away the status quo and gives opportunity. Then Waugh in Sword of Honour has the man “on the make” who shades into profiteering etc.
    I think this one goes on the wish list.

    • He’d been murdering people for years, but I don’t think he’d have got away with it to this extent if it weren’t for the occupation. The book certainly does give an unintentional idea of what exactly constituted everyday business in France.

  5. I just read your review. I’ve no love of true crime as a genre but this does sound very good. What an extraordinary and terrible story.

  6. I couldn’t find this on Netgalley, though it is an awful website (terrible search functionality and it keeps logging me back out). Is it published by Crown? Perhaps they’ve withdrawn it from the site.

    • I just checked netgalley and the book is no longer available. Some publishers withdraw titles after the publication date. Yes, It’s published by Crown. There’s a bio of Joseph Roth coming up in 2012 (different publisher).

      Although there’s a function to search by ‘latest’ I’ve missed titles this way, and now I go through the publishers I like one at a time.

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