Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris

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Overview

Death in the City of Light is the gripping, true story of a brutal serial killer who unleashed his own reign of terror in Nazi-Occupied Paris. As decapitated heads and dismembered body parts surfaced in the Seine, Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, head of the Brigade Criminelle, was tasked with tracking down the elusive murderer in a twilight world of Gestapo, gangsters, resistance fighters, pimps, prostitutes, spies, and other shadowy figures of the Parisian ...
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Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris

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Overview

Death in the City of Light is the gripping, true story of a brutal serial killer who unleashed his own reign of terror in Nazi-Occupied Paris. As decapitated heads and dismembered body parts surfaced in the Seine, Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, head of the Brigade Criminelle, was tasked with tracking down the elusive murderer in a twilight world of Gestapo, gangsters, resistance fighters, pimps, prostitutes, spies, and other shadowy figures of the Parisian underworld.  

The main suspect was Dr. Marcel Petiot, a handsome, charming physician with remarkable charisma.  He was the “People’s Doctor,” known for his many acts of kindness and generosity, not least in providing free medical care for the poor.  Petiot, however, would soon be charged with twenty-seven murders, though authorities suspected the total was considerably higher, perhaps even as many as 150.

Who was being slaughtered, and why?  Was Petiot a sexual sadist, as the press suggested, killing for thrills?  Was he allied with the Gestapo, or, on the contrary, the French Resistance?  Or did he work for no one other than himself?  Trying to solve the many mysteries of the case, Massu would unravel a plot of unspeakable deviousness. 
When Petiot was finally arrested, the French police hoped for answers. 

But the trial soon became a circus.  Attempting to try all twenty-seven cases at once, the prosecution stumbled in its marathon cross-examinations, and Petiot, enjoying the spotlight, responded with astonishing ease.  His attorney, René Floriot, a rising star in the world of criminal defense, also effectively, if aggressively, countered the charges.  Soon, despite a team of prosecuting attorneys, dozens of witnesses, and over one ton of evidence, Petiot’s brilliance and wit threatened to win the day.

Drawing extensively on many new sources, including the massive, classified French police file on Dr. Petiot, Death in the City of Light is a brilliant evocation of Nazi-Occupied Paris and a harrowing exploration of murder, betrayal, and evil of staggering proportions.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The twenty-six corpses found in the house Marcel Petiot (1897-1946) tell a tale, but their stark testimony was not the final morbid fruit of this serial killer's story. Physician by day, mass murderer at night, this French psychopath threaded his way through two world wars, committing seemingly innumerable crimes, yet managing to evade significant punishment even when captured. In fact, this articulate monster became the mayor of his provincial town not long after beginning his killing sprees. David King's Death in the City of Light escorts readers through the life of a serial killer whose final toll has still not been tallied: Some estimates of the number of victims exceed one hundred.

Gene Santoro
David King…has more than just fresh eyes and imaginative speculation to power his revisiting of this long-forgotten true crime. Piqued by a contemporary account he found at an antiquarian bookshop, he gained access to the extensive police records of the case, which had been classified for six decades. The wealth of quotidian detail suffusing his well-paced narrative is one rewarding result of his sifting. Another is the sweeping cast of characters in Death in the City of Light: they reflect the moral, political and personal tangles in Paris that the Nazi occupation fostered and that the French, after liberation, selectively pursued or buried.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
In 1944, when Parisian police entered a mansion littered with dismembered, rotting bodies, they thought of the Gestapo, but it turned out to be a purely French affair. Historian King (Vienna 1914) has mined the resulting global media circus (not only in France; Time magazine covered it) and extensive official records to tell a gripping story. The villain was a textbook psychopath, Dr. Marcel Petiot: a charming but heartless liar. Despite spending 20 years in and out of police courts, he won elections to local offices in the provinces only to be dismissed for petty crimes. Moving to Paris, he sold narcotics to addicts under the guise of treatment. During the German occupation, he offered to smuggle people out of France, murdering them when they arrived for the journey carrying their valuables. He went to the guillotine proclaiming himself (despite overwhelming evidence) a resistance hero, who killed only Nazis and collaborators. This fascinating, often painful account combines a police procedural with a vivid historical portrait of culture and law enforcement in Nazi-occupied France. Illus. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

"One of history's most macabre bouts of serial killing . . . David King, the author of Vienna 1814, has more than just fresh eyes and imaginative speculation to power his revisiting of this long-forgotten true crime."
New York Times

"If you like true crime, put this book at the top of your reading list. . . . An exceptional piece of crime reporting backed by a gut-wrenching narrative that is masterful, haunting, and an incredible literary achievement."
King Features Syndicate

"Unprecedented detail . . . The detail with which King explores the story is aided by the fact that not only did he have access to trial materials, including a stenographic record no one thought existed, but also the complete police dossier, which had been classified since the investigation began."
—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"A page-turning, detective/manhunt/courtroom drama . . . King tells it with the skill of the best police and courtroom beat reporters, mixed with the sweeping eye of a social historian."
—Lexington Herald-Leader

“A new masterpiece of true crime writing . . . the most startling impression left by Death in the City of Light is of Paris itself, confronting the bestiality lurking behind its supremely civilized facade, and of the handful of Parisiennes who tried to serve justice in spite of it.”
—Salon.com

“Required reading.”
New York Post

“Weirdly fascinating.”
—Bloomberg.com

“This nonfiction account tracks the extensive manhunt and sensationalized trial of Dr. Marcel Petiot, who lured his victims by promising them safe passage out of Nazi-occupied Paris. King gained access to classified French police files in order to re-create this story of terror against the chaotic backdrop of war.”
Goodreads September 2011 Movers & Shakers list

“Erik Larson's tour de force of narrative nonfiction hasn't been matched—until now…While this work is painstaking in its research, it still has the immediacy and gasp power of a top-notch thriller. True-crime at its best.”
Booklist (starred review)

“A gripping story…this fascinating, often painful account combines a police procedural with a vivid historical portrait of culture and law enforcement in Nazi-occupied France.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Gripping….expertly written and completely absorbing”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“David King's anticipated crime history.”
–NPR.org

Praise for VIENNA, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace by David King

“Reads like a novel. A fast-paced page-turner, it has everything: sex, wit, humor, and adventures. But it is an impressively-researched and important story.”
—David Fromkin, author of Europe’s Last Summer

“Superb…a worthy contribution to the study of a critical historical event long neglected by historians. It should be in every European history collection.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“A great story….richly narrated.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Deftly paced and engagingly written.”
Publishers Weekly

“A teeming…personality-rich panorama of the first truly international peace conference.”
Kirkus Reviews

“An outstanding addition to European history collections.”
Booklist

Library Journal
A mild-mannered physician by day, Marcel Petiot spent his nights hacking up at least 27 victims and possibly dozens more. He was finally brought to justice by the dedicated Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu of the Homicide Squad. What makes this story particularly unsettling is that Petiot committed his ugly crimes in Nazi-occupied Paris. Sounds like something Erik Larson would write—and like an entirely absorbing read.
Kirkus Reviews

The gripping narrative of a twisted serial killer preying on the most vulnerable citizens of Paris during the Nazi occupation.

In King's third work of historical nonfiction (Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna, 2008, etc.), he turns to World War II and the city of lights, narrating a frightening tale. When a chimney fire led to the discovery by Paris police of countless bodies hacked into pieces, they immediately suspected the home's owner, the respectable doctor Marcel Petiot, of committing these unspeakable crimes. A manhunt ensued, and Petiot managed to elude authorities for a time. Set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Normandy and the Nazi's retreat from Paris, King successfully weaves together the search for Petiot with the world-changing events surrounding the chase. The second half of the narrative focuses on Petiot's trial, during which the atmosphere in newly liberated Paris had changed drastically. The author demonstrates that while Parisians were ecstatic to be free from Nazi occupation, the stink of collaboration was everywhere. People were desensitized to the details of Petiot's crimes because of the abhorrent details that had reached them of the Nazi treatment of Jews. King writes history in an engaging manner; the narrative is fresh and clear, told succinctly, but with a befitting level of detail. The tale never drags as the author accelerates the suspense, revealing Petiot's staggering crimes at an appropriately stirring pace. However, King succeeds in never allowing Petiot's murders to overwhelm their context.

The author's successful transition into the true-crime genre—expertly written and completely absorbing.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781410445469
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/2012
  • Pages: 756
  • Sales rank: 705,958
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

DAVID KING is the author of the acclaimed Vienna, 1814 and Finding Atlantis. A Fulbright Scholar with a master's degree from Cambridge University, he taught European history at the University of Kentucky for several years. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife and children.
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Table of Contents

Preface 1

1 German Night 9

2 The People's Doctor 18

3 Preliminary Findings 29

4 Two Witnesses 39

5 "100,000 Autopsies" 49

6 The Woman with the Yellow Suitcase 60

7 "Beside a Monster" 67

8 A Delivery 74

9 Evasion 82

10 "Goodbye Arrogance" 90

11 Sightings 94

12 The Gestapo File 105

13 Postcards from the Other Side 118

14 Destination Argentina 127

15 War in the Shadows 139

16 The Attic 146

17 Frustration 156

18 Nine More 164

19 The List 172

20 Apocalyptic Weeks 178

21 "P.S. Destroy All My Letters" 188

22 At Saint-Mandé-Tourelle Station 193

23 Interrogations 202

24 Beating Chance? 214

25 The Knellers 225

26 The Petiot Circus 236

27 "Not in Danger of Death" 246

28 Two to One 253

29 Inside Murder House 260

30 Black Fingernails 269

31 "A Taste for Evil" 275

32 The Hairdresser, the Makeup Artist, and the Adventuress 287

33 Walkout 295

34 Naufrageur 302

35 The Verdict 310

36 Timbers of Justice 320

37 The Loot 327

Epilogue 335

Acknowledgments 343

Selected Bibliography 347

Notes 358

Illustration Credits 401

Index 402

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 35 )
Rating Distribution

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(11)

4 Star

(14)

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(10)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 35 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 3, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Thoroughly Creepy, Well Written

    I put off reading this book, because traditionally I don't enjoy non-fiction, but I do like stories with a historical basis. I wish I hadn't put it off, because once I started it, I really wanted to keep reading and just didn't have as much time on my hands. The author writes non-fiction in a very narrative style, which surprised me and made me wish other non-fiction was written this way. He does a great job of painting a picture of the crime scenes, courtroom, people etc. that makes you feel like you are a part of the story. At times it did get a little wordy and overly descriptive, but for the most part it was appropriate and made the book easier to read. As I was reading this novel, I found myself getting goose bumps, and having to go check that my doors were locked because the descriptions are somewhat creepy, but it was all in a good way that added to this unfortunately true story. There aren't any books that I have read recently that compare to this one, especially in the non-fiction category, it is definitely one that I will recommend to my friends and family.

    Reviewed by Gabi for Book Sake.

    11 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 22, 2011

    Live To Read

    This is one of the most interesting nonfiction books a reader can come across. It chronicles the evil and murders of Marcel Petiot. Petiot may be held accountable for over one hundred murders, making him one of the most diabolical murderers of all time (who was not, of course, a war lord). He operated under the guide of aiding Jews during World War II; instead, he brutally killed them. He plucked some victims off the street, leaving their families to wonder.

    There are many questions regarding Petiot that really have no definitive answer. Was he a sociopath? Psychopath? Part of the French Resistance? Skilled physician? or, perhaps, all of the above. The author doesn't attempt to sway the reader one way or the other, he remains fairly neutral.

    Forensic teams examined Petiot's handiwork, autopsies were performed, etc...the reader has the privilege of following this mystery and the experts who attempted to answer or at least describe the questions behind Petiot. The author has clearly done extensive research, everything flows. The events fall into place like dominoes, the reader won't be too confused (and this has the potential for being a confusing nonfiction book). This book is recommended to young adults/adults who enjoy nonfiction.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 14, 2011

    Stomach Turning but oh so good

    In a word.....WOW!!! I think you know by now that I am obsessed with True Crime. I have read a lot and always learn something. Death in the City of Light was mind blowing for me. I know I say it every time but the degree of sickness that these people, serial killers have is something that I don't think I will ever understand.



    Dr. Petiot was a much loved doctor. Who would have thought that he would have bodies and body parts in and about his house and sewers. He was a cold blooded killer with a wife and family! No not the first or the last but something about this book repulsed me so much more than others. I can't put my finger on just what it was.


    The number of murders reported in the book is 27 but I really think there are so many more victims that are unidentified and or unfound. The author did his research and there is a lot of history included. Remember, this was all going on while the serial killer Hitler was doing his own murdering. We read a lot about Paris at this time and that was very interesting for me. Let me tell you, lots of grimacing and head shaking went on while I was reading this book.

    Death in the City of Light is a bit on the long side due to all the vivid details and descriptions that the author includes. The trial was for me the best part of the book. Still caused me to shake my head more than once at the goings on, it got more interesting with every page turn.

    Definitely one to read if you are a true crime fan.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2012

    Really Interesting Book

    I'm a big fan of historical true crime and this was a really interesting book and not a true crime event I'd heard of before. Dr. Petiot murdered at least 27 (or perhaps over 100) people in Nazi occupied Paris between 1941-1944 when his crimes were discovered. After a 7 month chase he was captured and over his trial claimed he was a member of the French Resistance, despite proof that several of his known victims were Jews and disappeared after being taken to Dr. Petiot for a clandestine escape to Argentina to avoid Nazi deportation. Additionally no Resistance groups had heard of him or the resistance group Fly-Tox that he perported to work with. This book is a very interesting read (though I do wish the author had presented the facts chronologically and didn't skip hop around with dates quite so much ) and worth every penny.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2011

    Awesome book!

    I had never heard of this guy before,the story was fascinating! I usually am not into nonfiction, but really enjoyed the book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 10, 2011

    Very slow reading.

    The book is very hard to really get into. It is so slow moving. I'm not all that fond of this author. He didn't GRAB me. I won't pick this author again. Just not enough punch!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2011

    Interesting

    Good story line, but a bit longer and more indepth than it needed to be.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 3, 2011

    I found it quite ironic that there was an uproar and massive investigation for the murderer, when Hitler and his minions were, quite nonchalantly, murdering millions and burning their bodies, for so long, without the outcry from the citizenry.

    The book begins in 1944, in the upscale 16th arrondissement of Paris, a city under siege by the Germans. It is the time of The holocaust! There is black putrid smoke escaping from a chimney. A neighbor calls the police after the stench becomes overwhelming, but when the police arrive to investigate, they find something quite unexpected. It is a scene of mass murder and bodies are burning.
    Dr. Marcel Petiot, the owner of the building, was rumored to be in the French resistance but he has a checkered past. He disappeared shortly after the discovery of the bodies. The investigation into the mass murders is hampered by the nature of the times with the German occupation. The death and disappearance of many, for either criminal or religious reasons, was commonplace, so, although, Dr. Petiot aroused the suspicions of many, he was largely ignored. The Nazis routinely kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, and/or murdered, anyone they deemed dangerous to the regime.
    The court case appeared to be sloppily handled and mismanaged but one has to keep in mind that it took place shortly after the liberation of Paris, and the crimes were committed during the German occupation which made the evidence collection and witness interview process more cumbersome than it normally would have been.
    The scope of the crime and the madness surrounding it, coupled with the inept handling of the investigation, at the time, with the war still raging in Europe, made it a monumental effort for the police force to solve it and for the author to research. It is obvious that he has done an enormous amount of work compiling the information and has included an abundance of footnotes to back it up. Still it was hard to follow, at times. It was, nevertheless, a good mystery, making me question if it could really be true because the crimes were so heinous. If it didn't get so bogged down in details, it would have held my interest more, since it kept me guessing; did he or didn't he? It wasn't until the last two dozen pages that I was enlightened as to whether or not the main character was guilty or innocent.
    At times, the writing style seemed confusing. The message was often unclear and redundant, and the reading became tedious. A descriptive character list, someplace at the back of the book and a time line to follow for each character, to make the book easier to follow, would have been helpful. The unknown names of places and people and the plethora of foreign titles and details, made it even more perplexing. Some of the episodes seemed to be repeated or were so similar that it appeared that way. Since this was an Advanced Reader's Copy, perhaps many of these issues were corrected in the final version.
    I did not care for the cover which features some kind of a creature overlooking the city. Rather than looking scholarly, as a non-fiction book generally does, it looks as if it is geared for a different audience, one that likes science fiction, fantasy or stories about monsters. Petiot was indeed a monstrous man but not a monster. Was he "the great imposter" or the victim of circumstances? He had many identities and false papers to go with them. Was he a resistance fighter, a collaborator or a serial killer? A master at conversation, brilliant in creating excuses, charismatic and witty, he was an enigma to those who knew him or investigated his behavior.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 15, 2014

    Mildly Disturbing, but overall an interesting read

    Mildly Disturbing, but overall an interesting read

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2014

    Excellent read !

    Mr. King is surely giving Erik Larson a run for his money. This novel was a true page turner, horrifying, and written in an easy flowing narrative style. The fact that it is all true-is really mind-blowing. Keep them coming Mr. King and watch out Mr. Larson !

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2014

    Okay, not one of the most suspenseful books.

    It was interesting to read, but I've read true crime books that were more engrossing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2013

    Fascinating book, even if it drags a bit in the middle,but it ma

    Fascinating book, even if it drags a bit in the middle,but it makes up for it when telling the story of the trial. What makes this book so special is that the investigation takes place during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Not only do the police have to figure out who the killer was, but also whether he was protected by the Gestapo, or whether he was a member of the Resistance. Then, since the trial occurred after the Nazis were gone,  whether or not the police, the witnesses, and even the victims had been collaborators mattered.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2012

    A Page Turner

    The story of Dr Marcel Petiot and his crime spree is a compelling tragedy. Just when one thinks WWII doesn't have more strange stories to offer this book comes along. It drags a bit in the middle as the author spends too much time on the months where Dr. Petiot wasn't found and of the doings of the intelligentsia in France during occupations. Still this book is definitely worth a read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2012

    Nursury

    For deathstars kits

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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