Summary and book reviews of Death in the City of Light by David King

Death in the City of Light

The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris

By David King

Death in the City of Light
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2011,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2012,
    432 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Book Summary

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.

Preface
March 11, 1944

A thick black smoke streamed into Jacques and Andrée Marçais's fifth-floor apartment at 22 rue Le Sueur in the heart of Paris's fashionable 16th arrondissement. The smoke had begun five days before, but now, in the unusually warm weather, it was getting worse, seeping through closed windows and soiling the furniture. In the air was a nauseating smell described variously as burnt caramel, burnt rubber, or a burnt roast of poor quality. The source of the disturbance, it seemed, was a building across the street. "Do something," Andrée Marçais told her husband when he returned home just before six o'clock that evening, and she sent him over to investigate.

Neither Jacques nor his wife knew who, if anyone, lived in the neighboring two-and-a-half-story town house at 21 rue Le Sueur. A man was sometimes seen riding there on a green bicycle, towing a cart whose contents were concealed under a heavy canvas. On rare occasions, he ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

David King's engrossing and atmospheric examination of French mass murderer and physician Marcel Petiot's life is true-crime noir at its best. Always a cruel and crooked opportunist, Petiot develops into a rapacious executioner in the dark, desperate, and violent world of Nazi-occupied France. King deftly establishes this world with many fascinating digressions, including a brief look at the development of existentialism, and implies that the Paris of No Exit was the perfect killing ground for the bold, amoral, brilliant, selfish (and possibly insane) Marcel Petiot.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

Full Review Members Only (1055 words).

Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This fascinating, often painful account combines a police procedural with a vivid historical portrait of culture and law enforcement in Nazi-occupied France.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Gripping… expertly written and completely absorbing.

Library Journal

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

Booklist

Starred Review. 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.

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The Macdonald Triad and the Madness of Evil

In 1963, New Zealand forensic psychiatrist John Marshall Macdonald published a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry called "The Threat to Kill." This paper described three behaviors - bedwetting past age 5, cruelty to animals, and the setting of fires - as "red flag" indicators of sociopathy and future episodic, aggressive behaviors. In combination, these childhood activities have become known as the "Macdonald Triad" and have often been associated with serial killers and other violent criminals. (Petiot, like Jeffrey Dahmer, was viciously cruel to animals). While not all convicted serial killers demonstrate these behaviors, the Triad seems to predict anti-social tendencies. But what causes the Triad? Do we choose to be evil, do ...

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