Many books have been written about the serial-killing spree of Marcel Petiot, a French doctor convicted in 1946 of killing 26 people, but whose actual body count could be in the hundreds. The main advantage David King has over his predecessors in Death In The City Of Light: The Serial Killer Of Nazi-Occupied Paris is access to the unsealed, previously classified police dossier on the case. With a wealth of information from the time period, this is a rare non-fiction book that doesn’t feel endlessly padded out to hit a page count: King wastes little time reconstructing the investigation and trial of Dr. Petiot, and he has the carefully chosen details to compel.
Petiot was a small child who liked to kill animals, a mayor who stole small objects and siphoned off money for himself, and eventually a staple of 1944’s headlines when the many corpses at one of his properties were inadvertently discovered when a fire hit the building, producing a cloud of nauseating smoke. Subsequent investigation pointed to Petiot’s disturbing track record of offering to help people flee occupied France, only to lock them up in a soundproof room, kill them, meticulously hack up their bodies, and take their valuables. His crimes are mostly reconstructed from the police’s perspective, with the manhunt for Petiot (who disappeared when the bodies were found) as a compelling backdrop for the larger narrative of his crimes and the criminal life of his time.
Death In The City Of Light only succumbs to a few of the usual non-fiction failings: the occasional tendency to transform details into a kind of annotated itinerary (“Commissaire Massu arrived at his office at 36 Quai des Orfèvres on the Île de la Cité about nine o’clock on the morning of March 12, 1944”) and attempts to emphasize the importance of the subject by bringing in famous people also living in Paris who were only tangentially related to the subject. (In this case, Camus and Sartre, who had almost no direct involvement with the case, even as journalists.)
The significance of Petiot’s story isn’t so much the grisly scale of his killings as the fact that his crimes mirrored that of the German army: Many of his victims were Jews trying to flee France, convinced that the good doctor was there to help them. Questions of complicity between the French and their occupiers arise repeatedly, with Petiot described as a symbolic “self-appointed executioner for Hitler, gassing, butchering, and burning his victims in his own private death camp.” Petiot’s motivations and actions largely remain unclear, but King’s admirably clear-headed account puts what’s known in context, filling out the narrative with verbatim police-report dialogue to create a compelling portrait of Occupation-era France with all its contradictions intact.