Friday, May 4, 2012

Death in the City of Light

H.H. Holmes has nothing on Dr. Marcel Petiot. Petoit was a doctor in Nazi occupied Paris. Depending on who you asked, he either was a Nazi sympathizer or an extraordinary do gooder of the French Resistance. Petiot had a chaotic life as a child. His mother died when he was young and he and his brother were raised by their aunt. He enlisted in the Army during World Way I, served in some battles and when he was discharged he was declared mentally ill. Despite serving time in mental institutions, he still completed the schooling to receive a medical degree. He was a licensed doctor, married with no children.

Petiot's abattoir was discovered when neighbors complained about a horrible smell and strange smoke that was pouring from the chimney of his house. Petiot owned several properties around Paris, this one was close to a somewhat unsavory area. Police arrived, tried to find a key and finally broke in finding the source of both the smell and the smoke - a dismembered body in the furnace. The police missed the fact that the non-descript man on the bicycle who stopped to ask questions was actually Petiot.

Petiot's reputation was one of benevolence. He provided free medical care to patients who could not afford to pay for treatment and he instituted a protocol for weening drug addicts. He was also rumored to be "Dr. Eugene" a man who helped people escape Paris. He was also ultimately charged with 27 murders.

The story line jumps around - from the work of Massu, the chief investigator, to the narration of Petiot's past to the general political climate of Paris at the time. Paris was under Nazi occupation at the time. People suddenly disappearing, while not common, was not unheard of. With the Germans taking prisoners and people fleeing to unoccupied countries, a person could be missing for quite awhile before anyone would become concerned. Some of the victims were attempting to flee Paris. They had paid money to Dr. Eugene who would arrange transport out of Paris to an unoccupied country, most often in South America. These people were never directly heard from again. Some relatives received postcards purportedly from the missing people but it couldn't be verified they actually were from the missing person. What could be verified were the personal items discovered in trunks and suitcases in Petoit's attic and the attic of his brother. And these did belong to the missing people. Petiot had a large amount of cash and his wife had fine jewelry in a time when most people had neither.

The Gestapo suspected that Petiot was Dr. Eugene and involved with the escapes. At one point they actually arrested him, tortured him and interrogated him but then released him without explanation. It was for this reason some people thought he might be working for the Nazi's.

The book is packed with information on some of the characters Petiot dealt with - Nazi sympathizers, French resistance workers, French mobsters, black marketeers. The French mobsters are given placement in the book, even though they were on the periphery of Petiot's life. Almost like asides, they add color to the story line, each person adding another layer to Petiot's mystery. The book has volumes of information on occupied Paris, a subject of which I knew nothing. But it added nothing to the story about Petiot.

If you are looking for a book like Larson's Devil in the White City, this is probably not your book. But, if you are looking for an interesting story set in an equally interesting time period, you've found it.

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