David King’s Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi Occupied Paris (Crown, 2011) chronicles the grizzly crimes of French serial killer Marcel Petiot which shocked France and the world alike when they came to light in March 1944. Alerted by neighbours concerned about a foul smell and intense smoke emanating from one of the chimneys of a mansion at 21 Rue la Sueur in the fashionable 16th arrondissement of Paris, firefighters who entered the deserted building discovered human remains scattered throughout the basement. A search of the property also uncovered numerous suitcases, containing the clothes and other belongings of Petiot’s victims. Horrified at what had been found, even in the midst of war, the investigation began in earnest to discover the individual responsible for such heinous crimes. As explored by King, the search eventually led to French medical doctor Marcel Petiot (b.1897), although as King elucidates, uncovering the identity of the killer was far from simple.
Beginning in his youth Petiot had a long history of petty crime and mental illness but went on to serve in the First World War and went on to earn a medical degree in 1921. His professional life was rife was shady financial dealings and duplicitous efforts to attract and treat patients. Upon moving to Paris in the 1930s, Petiot built up an impressive practise, albeit plagued by rumours of illegal abortions and prescriptions of highly addictive remedies, but when Frances was invaded by the Nazis in 1940 and Paris subsequently occupied, Petiot’s killings began. Although he claimed to have been working with the French Resistance and had murdered many Nazis, the victims found in the basement of Petiot’s mansion were individuals lured there under false pretenses, including those such as Jews, Resistance fighters, and ordinary criminals who were told that Petiot operated an escape network. Although the remains of at least 23 people were ultimately recovered from the Rue la Sueur mansion, it is believed that Petiot killed as many as 60 people during his lifetime.
While the first portion of the book examines the discovery of Petiot’s victims in the basement of his Parisian mansion and the immense police investigation that followed, King also traces Petiot’s trial after he was at last comprehended, a logical continuation of the narrative. However, throughout the work King also delves into the terrifying world of Nazi occupied Paris in order to contextualize the case, thus making this true crime work not simply focused on the serial killer Petiot and his crimes, but also allowing a narrative focus on the other serious and very real crimes being committed in Paris during the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of France. Without losing sight of the book’s focus, King is able to include an immense amount of contextualization and additional history.
Interestingly, over the course of the work King makes few pronouncements on the case and instead lets both historical fact and speculation stand alone. This is significant given the duplicitous nature of Petiot and the narrative that he created in his efforts to evade the law. Even so, by presenting facts and less-substantiated material, albeit with some contextualization and comments, and letting them stand alone in this way, it is evident that the author is intimately familiar with the primary sources of the case, many of which are used to the utmost advantage in the retelling of crimes possessing the magnitude of Petiot’s murders. This story is a complex one, with many layers of intrigue that King presents to the reader in all their horrific detail, leaving the reader to ponder the intricacies of Petiot’s crimes and the character of the serial killer himself.
Although marketed as a true crime book, King’s text would easily appeal to those who are interested in the history of the Second World War, the events, personages, and progress of the war contextualized by King throughout the text. Sparing none of the lurid details of the case, but presenting them in a factual and effective way, King illuminates a shocking crime in an already incredibly dark chapter in the history of France’s City of Light.
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About the writer:
Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.