Death in the City of Light
Author: David King
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Date of Publication: June 5, 2012
Pages: 462 (Trade Paperback Edition)
Death in the City of Light is a disturbing look at a fascinating side story to the Nazi occupation of Paris. It begins with a grisly discovery of dismembered bodies in various stages of decay in an up-scale neighborhood of the 16th Arrondissement of Paris. This discovery sets off a search for the strange and puzzling owner of the building who promptly disappears.
The book is an attempt to define or describe Dr. Marcel Petiot. He is a medical doctor whose past as well as his life in Paris is cloaked in mystery. The author has done painstaking research into Dr. Petiot’s entire life story in order to help the reader try to understand the incomprehensible. He also includes many contemporary accounts of the investigations of the despicable crimes for which the doctor was eventually tried and convicted. The author cleverly leaves unanswered (as does history) the conundrum of which of two stories is true. The first story (expounded at the criminal trial) is that the doctor was a merciless killer who lured innocents into a trap by promising them a road to freedom from the Nazis. He instead stole all of their belongings, tortured them and then dismembered and disposed of their bodies. He had a history of mental illness and there arose some question as to whether the doctor was in fact insane. There was speculation that he had indeed also killed his first wife years before. The second story as told by the doctor as his defense is that he was a master of deception, working for a faction of the French Resistance, did indeed help people escape to Argentina and was framed by the Gestapo. There is some corroboration of the Doctor’s version of events. The author presents all of the available evidence for both stories.
There are other notable characters whom the author fleshes out in detail, including the police inspector, Dr. Petiot's wife and brother (accomplices or naive relatives?) as well as many of the victims who disappeared. These secondary characters add a lot of texture to the story of Dr. Petiot.
It is very interesting to read of the attempts at justice and proper police investigation by the French during the chaos of Nazi occupation. It is also interesting to read a about a murder investigation which took place many decades before the availability of forensic studies such as DNA analysis which we so take for granted. Death in the City of Light is a fascinating book, although at times the author sacrifices pace and readability for comprehensive reporting. The character of Dr. Petiot is portrayed as somewhat of a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” which rings true whichever story you as the reader want or come to believe.