Death in the City of Light – Book Review
By: David King
Publisher: Random House, Inc., Broadway Paperbacks, (www.crownpublishing.com)
Cover design: Dan Rembert
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 23 March 2013
Summary: The serial killer of Nazi-occupied Paris and the theoretical dilemma presented at his trial.
You have heard the moral dilemma question before: suppose you had a chance to kill Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin before they came to power, before they set out on the course of mass murder: would you kill them? Would you have killed them at their birth? It is the type of question some of us started debating in our teens.
DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT presents the question from an objective rather than subjective standpoint. It is a story in which a man declares himself a “would be” Hitler killer and seeks the judgment of his peers for his proximate actions toward that goal. Of course, since morality is merely a subset of deeds, it is much wiser to judge deeds than morality. All legal systems are designed specifically to weigh the consequences of deeds with morality being a fog in the background.
In 1944 war ravaged Paris, Dr. Marcel Petiot was put on trial for murdering what he contends were Nazi soldiers and, most importantly, Nazi collaborators. The distraction in this book, at least for people not accustomed to the Napoleonic Code of justice, leaves the morality question unaddressed because Petiot’s defense is a contrived manipulation of a horrible reality. The trial itself apparently had the air of a comedic Sam “Screaming” Kinison nightclub act. For his part, author David King lays out the most salient facts and concludes that the story of Marcel Petiot is the story of a “predator” who “brutally exploited opportunities for gain”. It is a sound conclusion. There are more than a few life lessons to learn from history King presents.
Marcel Petiot was a veteran of the First World War. In May of 1917, Petiot was suspiciously wounded in the foot by shrapnel from a hand grenade. (He may have did it himself). As King tells it, Petiot spent the next two years of the war “shuffled between medical clinics, army barracks, mental asylums, and even a military jail for theft.” Diagnosed as having a “mental imbalance”, the future Dr. Petiot received a disability pension from the time he was discharged from the military in 1919 until his trial in 1944. Even before entering the military, King reports family members regarded Petiot as an odd child with bizarre behavior.
From this unusual, though by no means uncommon history, you would think that there was the germ of a mass killer waiting for just the right climate, the right circumstances. Then we learn Petiot apparently applied himself with sufficient planning and dedication to graduate from the University of Paris with a degree allowing him to practice medicine. There was even more to the public life of Marcel Petiot elevating him above the typical check-list items portending a mass murder or serial killer. At the age of thirty, he was elected mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, the town in which he practiced medicine. Later he would win the election for conseil general of Yonne, the “approximate equivalent of a U. S. congressman.” He was a very ambitious man who exhibited “eccentricities”, which, instead of hurting his reputation, aided it. Wait. Have we not read this story before?
In describing with meticulous detail the historical circumstances in which Petiot flourished, David King provides an unshakable foundation for the eventual conclusion Petiot’s trial reaches. King could not have invented the social milieu of early 1940s Paris if he wanted too. It was surreal. Within this bizarre setting of sanctioned murder (war) and prohibitions against murder, it is easy to see how a Petiot could blossom and thrive. From the summer of 1942 to his arrest, Petiot was charged with twenty-seven murders. Upon being captured, Petiot confessed to committing sixty-three murders. Petiot maintained that the sixty-three murders were committed in the name of the French Resistance. It is this body count discrepancy that leads directly to the absurd nature of Petiot’s trial. When is murder not murder?
The French court never had to address the question. Even if the three magistrates and seven jury members conceded that Petiot had killed sixty-three people in the name of the French Resistance, at the very least they would also have to concede that he exhibited extraordinary incompetence in selecting his victims. Such incompetence alone was worthy of judgmental punishment. But they did not have to go there. Charged with killing and dismembering twenty-seven people and attempting to conceal their bodies in a lime covered grave was an in-your-face statement that he knew he was acting beyond the bounds of war.
Again, the exhaustive though succinct depiction of life in Nazi controlled Paris by author David King makes DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHTS more than a crime story. It is only fitting that the activities of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Pablo Picasso—the Existentialism crowd—come up in this book. Today we sit in front of computer screens or stroll around with hand-held communication devices and look back on the genocide of the 1940s as a breakdown of civilization. Examining the sordid events of DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHTS as a microcosm of the world at large, the argument can be made that World War II was not a nadir or bottoming-out of “civilized” behavior, but a zenith. All the machinery of war was working with uncommon efficiency; group mind-think exhibited a cohesiveness unequaled in history. There was an “enemy” and there was an “us”. It had all happened before of course, but on a smaller scale: from Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and an assortment of lesser known “barbarians” at the gates of civilized society. And while the battles raged, the patriotic rhetoric flourished, there was little Marcel Petiot killing and carving up people to enrich himself. Is there any wonder that the Existentialism of Sartre and Camus defines the individual as a creature of action, condemned to a freedom in which there is nothing but freedom to act. Morality, if there is such a thing, is merely an adjunct of action.
DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHTS is a thought provoking work. Aside from raising the question of our malleable definitions of morality, it illustrates the ambivalent dichotomy between a perceived good action and a perceived bad action. The moment we kill a tyrant, we become the tyrant. All the edifice of civilized society—laws, courts, juries—are designed to ameliorate the stark harshness of the conclusion, but the conclusion rests as an enduring edifice of its own.