Review: David King – “Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris
Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very unlikely but probably true story of Marcel Petiot, doctor, serial killer, mayor, thief, fraud, author and…by my guess, a psychopath. In any case, this book made me marvel and wonder if I’ve ever come across a tale about such a bold and productive (if you can call it that) psychopath.

I NEVER HEARD OF A DOCTOR-SURGEON-MAYOR-MURDERER IN FACT OR FICTION, MUCH LESS ONE WHO WAS ALSO A SPY, OR INTELLIGENCE INFORMER, WRITER, CARTOONIST, ANTIQUE EXPERT, MATHEMATICIAN, OR WHO CALMLY CLAIMED POSSIBLY A HUNDRED AND FIFTY VICTIMS “¦Â HE HAD LOST COUNT. “”Dr. Albert Paul

This book follows him dashing through the annals of history, avoiding justice, getting caught and finally getting sentenced. Despite the high number of people he was convicted of killing – 26 – he probably killed more than that.

Marcel Petiot's mugshot

He claimed to have been a very high-ranked member of the French resistance and killed every single one of his victims as part of a very covert operation. Trouble was, his clinic-cum-torture-and-killing-chamber was not only filled with corpses upon his unveiling, but also with a lot of suitcases, clothes and jewellery belonging to his victims. Most of them are believed to have paid Petiot large sums of money to have them transported out of then nazi-occupied France. From the book:

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.

What I deem to be psychopathic traits, were shown early in his youth but also during his military service; from the book:

After Petiot’s arrival, the unit began to enjoy an unaccustomed variety of dry sausages, cheeses, candy, wine, and other luxuries, no doubt obtained from daily and nightly foraging excursions. Petiot seemed to glow after each triumph. The soldier remembered one conversation about the morality of theft, Petiot arguing that it was completely natural. “How do you think that the great fortunes and colonies have been made? By theft, war, and conquest.“ Then morality does not exist? No, Petiot answered, “it is the law of the jungle, always. Morality has been created for those who possess so that you do not retake the things gained from their own rapines.“ Petiot would later claim that he learned a lot from war.

Before being captured for his crimes, but while being wanted by the authorities, Petiot not only claimed to be his brother while visiting the fresh crime-scene, but also posed as Captain Henri Valeri in order to discuss the case about the case…

[...] with the procureur de la république, who later said he had been impressed by Valeri’s thoroughness, energy, and command of the facts of the case. “It’s unbelievable,“ Valeri’s secretary, Cécile Dylma, said to Inspectors Lucien Pinault and à‰mile Casanova, about learning the identity of her boss. “He’s a man so sweet, so calm. Captain Valeri has never shown a single act of anger towards us.“ At the same time, she acknowledged that he declined most invitations and generally kept quiet about his private life. “To think that I have been alone with him in his office for a month,“ Dylma said, “it makes me shudder.“

The way King has documented the trial of Petiot is well done, considering the undertaking; Petiot marshaled the whole thing as a ringmaster would his circus, but constantly staying manic and defiant throughout the entire process. He even made fans out of some in the audience and signed copies of his books during recess.

In the end, Petiot met his doom, but loads of questions still remain riddled throughout this case, regarding a man who at the time of his capture remained on a pension for a mentally disabled person. He was still working as a doctor at the time.

This is a quite astonishing tale, and King tells it well, without demonising Petiot too much; he seems to realise that just telling the facts is enough to amaze anybody who reads this book, and I’ve read quite a few books on serial killers. You can find more about the case itself here.

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