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death in the city of light

21 january 2021

The serial killings discovered in Paris' Rue Le Sueur in 1944 proved to be a bizarrely inverted murder case. From early on, there was no doubt about the identity of the killer: it was a physician named Marcel Petiot. But as David King explains in Death in the City of Light, the Quai des Orfèvres did not know for quite some time who Petiot had killed, or how, or why.

The murders emerged when the private crematorium where Petiot disposed of his victims became intolerable for its neighbors. Police discovered hundreds of assorted body parts, some half-incinerated, others buried in quicklime. None proved highly identifiable, and the names of the murdered were eventually pieced together circumstantially from witness narratives and other physical evidence (Petiot collected clothes and suitcases belonging to his victims).

Was Petiot a maniac? He had spent some time in asylums, but he was clever and calculating, as became evident at his long postwar trial, where he spun webs of mendacity and invective around his accusers. Was he a just (if extra-legal) executioner, dispatching informers and collaborators who betrayed the Resistance to the Nazis? Did the Nazis frame him by using his premises as a killing ground of their own? Petiot claimed both motives by turns, whatever put him in a better light.

Was he a collaborator himself, dispatching Resistance fighters? King doubts it, and prosecutors could provide no link between Petiot and the Gestapo. In fact, French police, led by Georges Simenon's friend Commissaire Massu, initially inferred the scope of the case from the mere fact that the occupying authorities, early in 1944, let them investigate it at all. If Petiot had been a double agent, the Germans would have protected him, or more likely spirited him away and done him in. But Petiot seemed to be a genuine Resistance figure when it suited him, and had even spent considerable time in Gestapo custody.

Ultimately the motive became clearer: Petiot lured would-be refugees with promises of safe-conduct to Argentina, killed them, grabbed whatever possessions of theirs he could, and depended on the secrecy surrounding such escape operations to mask his highly profitable crimes. Even in 2011, though, King cannot say for sure how Petiot effected the killings. Poison gas seems the likeliest answer, though it's a speculation, and the precise method remains unknown.

And it's likely to. King's account is exhaustively researched, with massive documentation. This is one of those books where, at least in the English language, it is likely to be the definitive study forever. Hence King omits no relevant detail and includes quite a few tangential ones, like what Jean-Paul Sartre was doing at various points. (Sartre taught at the Lycée Condorcet, around the corner from Petiot's home on Rue Caumartin; the actual murder house was across town.)

Death in the City of Light is an intriguing study of occupied Paris from the perspective of an outrageously lurid criminal case. Massu, the initial protagonist, unfortunately drops from the story (wounded by Petiot's counter-accusations of collaboration, Massu dropped from the case and even from the police force for some time). But that's the difference between real life and Maigret, and we have to accept it in a true-crime book. The book only drags in its account of the trial, an interminable vituperative affair that seems to have obscured as much as it brought to light. Petiot was guillotined for 26 of the uncounted murders he committed, bearing his fate sardonically. The affair crystallized the ill-will and contradictions of the era, and the divisions in French society that echo down to the present day. King's narrative of it is first-rate.

King, David. Death in the City of Light: The serial killer of Nazi-occupied Paris. 2011. New York: Broadway [Crown / Random House], n.d.