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?