"Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of...

"Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris," by David King (Crown, September 2011). Credit: None/

DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, by David King. Crown, 416 pp., $26.

 

As a youngster, Marcel Petiot tried to boil the family cat and, when thwarted by his horrified mother, succeeded in smothering the beast later that night.

Worse was to come.

Before he was guillotined in 1946, Petiot may have murdered more than 100 people in the four years that the Nazis occupied France. The number is vague because so little was left of his victims once the bits and pieces were shoved into an oven or tossed into a lime pit.

Petiot was ultimately charged with butchering 27 men and women -- most of them Jews, though he was hardly encouraged, it seems, by any Nazi overlords.

"Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris" is David King's oddly absorbing caper through a sinister city darkened by a 10 p.m. curfew and festooned with Third Reich bunting.

King starts off with the grisly findings at a smoke-belching mansion in the rue Le Sueur on March 11, 1944. A charred hand is still cooking in the coal stove; body parts litter the basement.

The owner of the mansion was, of course, little Marcel. He'd grown up into a mad doctor with a pretty wife and a normal son. "It's unbelievable. He's a man so sweet, so calm," said a woman who worked with the homicide department.

Even more unbelievably, the officer she called Capt. Henri-Jean Valeri was, in fact, Petiot, who had sprouted new facial hair and inserted himself into the ongoing investigation.

The police spent seven months hunting him, unearthing a string of aliases, suspicious disappearances and 49 suitcases. Hidden in the attic of a shop in the Burgundy region, the suitcases were stuffed with handbags, gowns, jackets, socks, slippers, belts, eyeglasses and hairpins once worn by the frightened people who had come to Petiot believing he could smuggle them to safety. In fact, he took their money, killed them and hoarded their belongings.

Petiot seems to have been that rarest of creatures, a mass murderer even the Gestapo found creepy. About a year before the startling discovery in the rue Le Sueur, Gestapo agents had hauled him into a small room and tortured him with dental equipment, apparently thinking he was helping Jews get out of France. But then they let him go.

Why? Even King, who had access to restricted police dossiers, finds the Gestapo connection puzzling.

Neither is he sure just how Petiot killed so many people with such ease. As a doctor, he had easy access to cyanide and could have injected his victims with a syringe. Or maybe he gassed them, creating his own mini-Auschwitz.

Petiot stood trial in the fall of 1944. He loved it, preening until the end, joshing with spectators and generally besting the prosecutors.

Some stories would have benefited from a scalpel; King's cast of characters can get confusing. Still, his descriptions of the underworld are fascinating, and I appreciated his eye for detail.

That jar of genitals really lingers in the mind.

Top Stories