Sunday, July 21, 2013

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

Photo: Book's cover, from its Wikipedia page.  Great cover!

Very specifically-written account of the murders committed by Dr. Marcel Petoit, of which there may have been 27, or 150, or anything in between, by David King.  In Nazi-occupied Paris, he would advertize his services as a Resistance-fighter, as a man who could get Jews and others out of the country, to Argentina and to freedom.  His orders were to not tell anyone.  To carry as much money as possible, sewn into their clothes.  To remove all identifying tags.  To pack all of their most valuable belongings into two suitcases and to bring them on the day they were to get away.  He'd have them meet him at an address, at an apartment condo affixed with a gas chamber, a scope that allowed him to see the suffering from the gas, or from the poison he might've injected them with.  He became very rich.

The book shows a lot of the Paris of the time, from existentialists Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir (it was cool to hear about them; I studied them while getting my philosophy degree, but I didn't get to learn a lot about their daily lives), to the daily struggles of everyone else at the time, to the way the police department worked in its tug of war with the Nazis in power, to many other things.  Petoit's crimes over so long proved the maxim of the best way to get away with something huge and terrible: To do so in the wide open, because nobody will believe it, and those who do will willfully ignore it.

It covers the trial, which was a farce of the highest order.  In a French trial, the judge, the accused, the prosecution, and any lawyer of any of the other civil defendants can all ask a question, interrupt, and say anything at any time.  So can the judge, and any of the assistant judges he has next to him.  So can any member of the jury.  This, as you may imagine, would create a chaos that I still have trouble understanding.  How anything is proven, or disproven, and judged upon is a mystery.  But Petoit was found guilty, and guillotined.  His last moments exhibit a perhaps-psychotic calm that is also beyond belief.

The subject matter saves the book, in a way, because the author displays a very dry, matter-of-fact writing style that could bore had the subject been more pedestrian.  I had no trouble putting it down, though I did want to continue.  A better job could perhaps be done with all this, though I do understand, perhaps, that the author may have felt such an approach was necessary in order to make sense and order out of all the chaos.  I have not read any of his other work, so I can't say if this is just his style, or not.

Worth a read, though Petoit's manic behavior, and his apparent ability to impress so many very well-educated and otherwise hard to impress people, may turn the reader off a little.  A Jekyll-and-Hyde person, Petoit was both a celebrated and altruistic doctor, and a mass-murderer, serial-killer-for-profit, and perhaps fifty other types of person, all at the same time, and was in and out of institutions frequently.  It was also clear that he worked for the Gestapo, and that he may have started this killing spree getting rid of other Gestapo workers--and then started killing everyone, including Jews desperate to get out of France.

Sickening, yet compulsively readable.

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