Death in the City of Light by David King is the gripping, true story of a brutal serial killer who unleashed his own reign of terror in Nazi-occupied Paris. As decapitated heads and dismembered body parts surfaced in the Seine, Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, head of the Brigade Criminelle, was tasked with tracking down the elusive murderer in a twilight world of Gestapo, gangsters, resistance fighters, pimps, prostitutes, spies, and other shadowy figures of the Parisian underworld.
The main suspect was Dr. Marcel Petiot, a handsome, charming physician with remarkable charisma. He was the “People’s Doctor,” known for his many acts of kindness and generosity, not least in providing free medical care for the poor. Petiot, however, would soon be charged with twenty-seven murders, though authorities suspected the total was considerably higher, perhaps even as many as 150.
I don’t normally read true crime, but was attracted to this one by the setting, Paris during the Occupation in World War Two, and remained intrigued with the story of the police work of the period. Since my knowledge of serial killers mostly comes from fiction, it was very interesting to see how this true case was like and unlike those I’d read in novels and seen in movies. This particular book was very focused on the police work as well as the psychology of the killer.
Unlike when reading fiction, however, it was difficult to feel myself a safe distance from the crimes. I often winced as I pictured the murders, and at the details of how the murderer disposed of the bodies.
…the small team of firefighters traced the peculiar, nauseating smell to a small room in the basement. One of the two coal stoves there was roaring furiously. It was fireman Roger Bérody who opened the iron door. Jutting out were the charred remains of a human hand. On the far staircase was a pile of debris, which turned out to be a skull, a rib cage, and several other recognizable bones. Arms and legs had been strewn about in parts. A split torso and two other skulls lay on the floor. The stench of scorched and decomposing flesh was overpowering. Horrified, the fire chief ordered his men out of the basement.
Given the time period, it was hard not to make connections with the Holocaust, especially since Petiot targeted Jews over other victims, often by pretending to be a member of the French Resistance who would get them safely out of Nazi-occupied Paris, instead killing them and stealing their valuables.
Like many serial killers of fact and fiction, Petiot also kept remembrances of his victims:
Concealed in a cupboard in Petiot’s basement were some twenty-two toothbrushes, twenty-two bottles of perfume, twenty-two combs and pocket combs, sixteen cases of lipstick, fifteen boxes of face powder, and thirty-six tubes of makeup, mascara, and other beauty products. There were also ten scalpels, nine fingernail files, eight hand mirrors, eight ice bags, seven pairs of eyeglasses, six powder puffs, five cigarette holders, five gas masks, four pairs of tweezers, two umbrellas, a walking cane, a penknife, a pillowcase, a lighter, and a woman’s bathing suit. Clearly there were many women among the victims, and the killer appeared to be hoarding their personal belongings.
The parts of the books I enjoyed most were peripheral to the actual crimes. I was quickly drawn in by the author’s vivid imagery of Paris at the time the first of the killings were discovered:
The city was suffering the fourth year of the Nazi Occupation. Huge red and white banners emblazoned with a black swastika had flown atop the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and many other landmarks and buildings near Petiot’s town house. White placards with Gothic script directed traffic, mostly German and many of them, in that area, Mercedes-Benzes or Citroëns with small swastika flags on the fenders. The few people on the streets after the official ten p.m. curfew were Germans, “friends of the occupiers” and the “workers of the night.” A brothel exclusively for Nazi officers was located just around the corner from Petiot’s property.
I got a fairly vivid picture of what it was like to constantly fear both the Gestapo and French who collaborated with them. For those who, like me, didn’t have a lot of familiarity with the period overall, it also helped that there were sections on famous artists and writers (Picasso, Sartre, Camus) who lived in Paris at the time, which helped me to place the case into context. I would have appreciated more of this sort of information, perhaps tied in more tightly to the overall picture I gained from the author’s examination of the crime.
I think fans of the television show Law and Order, especially those interested in factual, historical mysteries, would really love this book. Later, as the case progresses toward trial and conviction, the book gives a detailed picture of legal process in that particular time and place, and how it was complicated by a firestorm in the media and by the grandiose claims of the murderer as well as by situations caused by the Occupation. It was frustrating to read how difficult it was to convict Petiot of the killings, but also fascinating to learn many of the details that were not revealed at the time; and because of that frustration, the ending was all the more satisfying.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen, or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.