Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: "Death in the City of Light," David King

Reviewed by Paul Carrier for THE WALRUS SAID

Any thoroughly researched, carefully written account of a real-life serial killer who dismembered his victims before tossing body parts into a lime pit or a stove has the makings of a page turner. But if the setting for these horrific crimes is Paris under Nazi occupation, an otherwise interesting story becomes a gripping tale, as David King demonstrates in Death in the City of Light. 

The suspected culprit here is Dr. Marcel Petiot, a successful physician who finally runs afoul of the law in March 1944 when neighbors complain about foul-smelling smoke belching from the chimney of a building he owns at 21 rue Le Sueur.

As the tale unfolds, detectives led by Victor Massu (who served as a model for Georges Simenon’s famed fictional gumshoe Jules Maigret) try to identify the human remains that litter the building and its grounds, and determine how and why the victims were killed. All while searching for Petiot, whom the Nazis want the police to arrest. 

The intervention of the Gestapo makes the already complex case even more convoluted, because the occupiers do not normally stick their noses into the workings of the Paris police unless a case involves a critic of the regime. Did Petiot commit the murders? If so, was he working with the Resistance? Or for the Gestapo? Or simply acting on his own?

“Commissaire Massu had made some 3,257 arrests in his thirty-three-year career investigating crime in the French capital,” King writes as the investigation becomes bogged down, “but he had never seen a case as heinous or as perplexing as this one.” Newspapers quickly dub the missing doctor the Butcher of Paris, Doctor Satan, and the Modern Bluebeard. 

The police take Petiot’s wife and brother into custody, but Petiot proves elusive for months on end. Over time, a trail of evidence suggests that Petiot may have run a secretive relocation organization that offered to help Parisians flee occupied France.

King explains all this with painstaking attention to detail, but the flow of the narrative never flags and the pacing and plainspoken style make Death in the City of Light a mesmerizing read. The author sets Petiot’s crime spree in the context of life in occupied Paris, whose liberation King describes in dramatic detail. 

After a nearly eight-month search, Petiot’s eventual arrest following the liberation sets the stage for a surreal murder trial. By then, it has become clear that the checkered past of the witty and charismatic doctor also includes drug dealing and the mysterious disappearance over the years of several people who were set to testify against him in various cases. 

Death in the City of Light is all the more compelling because it is scrupulously factual. As King said in an interview with Crown Publishing: “None of it is fiction. There are no imagined scenes whatsoever. As in my previous books, every bit of dialogue and every description comes from the sources – in this case, Paris police reports, newspapers, diaries, memoirs, correspondence, or other eyewitness accounts.” The bibliography in Death in the City of Light runs to more than 10 pages and lists over 200 books. 

“Historians have tried to consult the sensitive and controversial material in this archive for years; so you can imagine my excitement when the amazing team at the Paris police archive gave me complete access,” King said in that interview. “There were massive cartons of police reports, interrogations of witnesses, searches of properties, crime-scene photographs, the detailed dossier from Petiot’s stays at mental asylums, and many, many other things. The archive was enormous and invaluable. I would arrive at the door, waiting for the archive to open, and, for many days, I literally did not leave my chair until closing nine hours later.” 

Judging by the final product, it was time very well-spent.

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