Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: Death in the City of Light

On the one hand I am tempted to suggest that it is comforting to learn another culture screws up high-profile cases too.  On the other hand, the surreal circumstances of serial killer Marcel Petiot are too astonishing not to know--for seventeen years I've taught a WWII unit as a companion piece to a month with the Diary of Anne Frank.  My students not only read Anne's diary but they self-select two other books of interest about the period.  In all of my digging through fiction and nonfiction, poetry and ideas for lessons, research topics based on the culture of the 1940s I never once recall coming across the name Marcel Petiot.

David King's Death in the City of Light astonished me.

Who knew that a serial killer operated right beneath the toothbrush mustachioed nose of the world's most notorious serial killer.  I understand that it was difficult to compete with Hitler.

However, this isn't your run-of-mill serial killer--Marcel Petiot, a trained surgeon, lured Jews back to his house of horrors by offering help fleeing Occupied Paris.  Despicably, he preyed on frightened people, terrified people who believed this man would save their lives,  they trusted him and paid a lot of money in cash or jewels for the relief of the safe passage offered to South America.  Petiot drugged them, murdered them in a homemade gas chamber (equipped with a viewing lens so he could watch), then carved them into pieces which ended up decomposing in a quicklime pit in his yard or stoking the stove in the basement.

Beyond the cruel and savage nature of his actions, Marcel Petiot pandered to the media, yawned at the judge and jury, taunted the prosecution and made an absolute spectacle of the trial.

Rumors at the time swirled that the Nuremberg Trials would be put on hold so lawyers and politicians could attend the closing events of the Petiot trial.

From the outset, the judge lost control of the courtroom, the prosecution bungled evidence, and the public laughed at and with Petiot.  A trial for the murder of anywhere from 20 to over a 100 people (many represented by family or loved ones) turned into a source of daily laughs.

For me, the book is as much about Petiot as it is about the era.  Death followed millions during and after World War II--King suggests that a society so immersed in death had a difficult time finding the nausea, fear, and loathing for a serial killer who frankly admitted murdering many.  He claims to have been murdering Nazis--another nauseating show of disrespect to the families of the people he butchered.

The details in the book satisfy the curiosity as King digs deep into Petiot's history as well as the evidence, the files and testimonies, and the French investigators who hunted Petiot down and brought him to justice.

A highly recommended read for anyone interested in history or even pop culture--this Petiot trial is one of the enormous moments of pop culture that I never heard about from the 1940s.

Yves Klein

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