Cornerofmadness's Reviews > Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris

Death in the City of Light by David King
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Jan 21, 2012

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bookshelves: true-crime

** spoiler alert ** I picked this one up because of my long-term interest in forensics and serial killers and because I knew so very little about Nazi-Occupied Paris (and overall, not that much about European serial killers with several notable exceptions).

Dr. Marcel Petiot is a rather enigmatic character and 350 pages later he remains so. Petiot served in WWI as a young man and had documented mental issues thereafter. Some people loved him as a physician while others deemed him little more than a drug dealer to the gangsters and ladies of the night. He may have been a little of both.

The book opens with the discovery of bones in one of his buildings. There appeared to be several men and women dismembered buried in quick lime or burned in stoves. Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu was called into investigate and to his horror the investigation revealed as few as twenty-five and possibly as high as a hundred missing people and body parts.

Petiot was thought to kill for three reasons a) any patient who might reveal to the police that he was illegally prescribing morphine and other narcotics b) wealthy Jews trying to escape the country c) Gestapo officers and French collaborators. Certainly in the trial, he claimed any of his kills (he went to trial on 27 counts) were in the last group and he had done it as part of the French Resistance and for the love of his country.

The book looks in great detail about the Petiot’s early life and his medical practice, the police investigation during which Petiot was on the run and the trial, which was a circus of botched media control, poor technique and a trial of public opinion.

Over all, the book wasn’t bad. It’s obviously meticulously researched but the research is part of the problem. It almost felt like King wanted to write two different books: one about Occupied France (and was denied the chance) and one about Petiot. The middle of the book bogs down badly with detail that had nothing to do with anything. I was fine with setting the stage a bit. I didn’t know that much about the Nazi occupation and that is rather necessary to understand the feelings of the time and the trial (where Petiot, who had been a prisoner of the Nazis, claimed he was killing Nazis and no one else). However, it was obvious the author is enamored of his subject matter and we get several chapters about Camus, Sarte and Picasso among other celebrities of the time. I kept wondering if Camus and Sarte would show up later in the story at the trial but no.

I think the excess detail was not to the book’s advantage. World War two history buffs and forensic science buffs are not necessarily interchangeable. I started getting bored and it did take me quite a while to get through this. At the end I almost felt that King felt a little sorry for Petiot and that he hadn’t had a fair trial (which is the sentiment of some of those involved). However, given the copious detail provided (and unlike law shows would have us believe, trials aren’t all that exciting), I can say yes there were MANY unanswered questions and that there probably was grounds for a mistrial but frankly most of the mistakes documented here were in the defenses favor. Well, at least I got to see something about a serial killer I had known little about.
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