During the years of Nazi occupation of Paris, Marcel Petiot, a seemingly respectable doctor, murdered an unknown number of people. Was he a German sympathizer, using his own form of a "final solution" on innocent Jews who merely wanted to escape the city? Was he a member of the French resistance, acting as judge and executioner towards those he saw as friendly towards the Nazi occupiers? Or was he merely a cunning sociopath who took advantage of the chaos of the times to inflict as much horror and sadistic torture on those victims he managed to convince to walk through his door? What follows is a complicated, often convoluted trek through the oppressed streets and shadowy corners of Paris as the author attempts to answer those questions.
While the book does lay out, quite vividly, the incompetence of the French police force and the near-absolute ineffectiveness of the court system during those crazy, confused times, what the book doesn't do is create a compelling, coherent story. It's obvious the author did an exhaustive amount of research; what's not obvious is some sort of thread binding the story together. King attempts to illustrate the desperate gaiety exhibited by the glitterati who stayed in Paris despite the tramping of Nazi boots down her vaunted (some would say hallowed) streets by interspersing chapters detailing the plays put on by Sartre and Picasso in intimate salons for the edification and entertainment of a select few of Paris society; he also inserts chapters illustrating the desperate last stand of the French government and its leaders as they tried to keep German forces away. However, instead of creating a well-rounded view of this particular era in history, these chapters seem...awkward and jarring. They don't fit into the narrative, at least not fluidly, and they certainly don't enhance it.
Speaking of the narrative, I'm very sorry, but it's a snooze-fest. I started the book with every intention of becoming absorbed in the tale of a search for a mass-murderer who cleverly used the chaos of the times to get away with murder, literally. A third of the way through, I found myself supremely bored and from then on, I skimmed. The points King presented, illustrating the "progress" of the case, seemed scattershot and more like a courtroom presentation of witnesses and suspects rather than a breathless tale of a chase through the city. While we do, eventually, get to know Petiot and see him for the delusional maniac that he was (although the true scope of his crimes was never fully examined by the court at the time, leaving us, the reader, questioning whether he was truly as diabolical as he was painted or if he got away with more than was discovered), it comes about in a rambling, uneven (and excessively name-dropping) manner.
In the end, while I agree this is a grim and grisly portrait of a disturbed individual, one who perpetrated numerous crimes upon an innocent and unsuspecting populace, it is neither a gripping nor mesmerizing account, as proclaimed by the advertising campaign. Having read only the ARC, I don't know what the publisher's final plan or layout for the book may be, but I will say I believe the story would be helped by a few photos of the main players, perhaps a map of the city or a plan of the house in which the crimes took place. As a visual person, I feel such aids would greatly help illuminate the book and perhaps give the story more life.