When I stumbled across David King’s 2011 book Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris during one of my weekend visits to the public library I was compelled to grab the book for three reasons. One, at the time I thought needed to read and review something about, or set in France for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. (Silly me, right after I walked out of the library I suddenly remembered Paris 1919 had already taken that honor.) Second, my love of Allan Furst’s Night Soldiers novels has kindled my interest in the German Occupation of Paris. Three, when granted the opportunity to read about a serial killer running loose in occupied Paris Death in the City of Light was a book I couldn’t pass up.
One day Paris police receive a report of suspicious smoke and a nasty stench emanating from a Parisian townhouse. After the police arrive and do a quick inspection of the property they find not only bones and other human remains but also a sound-proof room, presumably some sort of killing chamber. If having to live under Nazi occupation wasn’t bad enough, in the spring of 1944 the good people of Paris learn a serial killer has been stalking them. Soon the hunt is on for the residence’s registered owner, Marcel Petiot a former politician and current doctor. As the investigation proceeds people start asking questions. Who has Petiot murdered? Were the victims Nazis and French collaborators? If so, would that make him a patriotic hero? On the other hand, if his victims were Jews and members of the French Resistance would that mean Petiot is a Nazi agent? Or is he simply an evil murderer killing indiscriminately without agenda, political, personal or otherwise.
Death in the City of Light is a decent and fairly entertaining book. To King’s credit his book feels well-researched, and therefore there’s no shortage of detail. Ironically, in spite of King’s hard work in telling this forgotten story, we may never know everything about Petiot and his murderous acts. Some secrets even the most barbarous and unrepentant killers take to their graves.