Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review of Death in the City of Light by David King (Sphere, 2011)

Death in the City of Light traces the case and trial against Dr Marcel Petiot, suspected of killing between 20 and over 100 victims during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and possibly more in the twenty years previously. Petiot is first suspected when various bits of bodies are found in a chic Right Bank house which he owns. Before he can be apprehended he disappears. Assigned to the case is detective Georges Massu, one of the two detectives on which Georges Simonen based Inspector Maigret. The investigation for the French police is not easy. The city is occupied by the Nazis and the Gestapo is hardly cooperative. Petiot is a complex character - he’s spent time in mental institutions, he’s been a town mayor, he’s a successful doctor, and he’s been held for months by the Gestapo, suspected of running a resistance escape route, before being released for a large payoff. He is also incredibly wealthy. To compound issues, Petiot is eventually apprehended after the fall of Paris, when he is working for a communist resistance group. Massu and the entire investigating team have been dismissed for being collaborators. Moreover, Petiot does not deny killing some of the victims found in his house, arguing that they were enemies of the state and he was performing a patriotic act of war as part of the resistance. The trial that followed was a farce, with Petiot using his quick wit to make a mockery of the prosecuting team and the judge.

The book is a fairly pedestrian affair, setting out the main features of the case, the investigation and the trial. Despite having access for the first time to the classified French files, it is unclear what new insights King brings to the story. And despite the focus on Petiot, he remains somewhat an enigma as there are still so many holes to his biography and very little concerning his motives, other than broad speculation. The narrative also suffers from some odd asides. For example, the material on Sartre, Camus, Picasso and other celebrity artists, whilst interesting, is totally redundant to the story. If the idea was to give an insight into Paris during the occupation, it would have been much more useful to provide accounts of everyday lives, or given the claims in the trial, the organisation and activities of the resistance. We are given neither. In many ways the book raises more questions than it answers, and some of the answers that are given are unsatisfactory. For example, at the end of the book, the author claims to know how the victims were killed (a fact never established during the investigation or trial), drawing on an obscure book that recounts the tale of a survivor. The problem is, whilst the hypothesis is plausible, the scenario cannot be survived! Overall, an interesting topic dealt with in a mundane, often dry, fashion.

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