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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 26 January 2012
In March 1944, the police and fire service were summoned by neighbours of a house on rue Le Sueur, part of a Parisian suburb, from which thick black smoke had been emanating for 5 days. The smell was nauseating, described as burnt rubber or burnt roast of poor quality. Further enquiry revealed the property to be an unoccupied house belonging to Dr Marcel Petiot, a respectable family physician with a flourishing practice. The firefighters entered the building and traced the smell to a small basement room. On opening the iron door, they discovered dismembered human bodies and bones. Two coal stoves were present, one roaring furiously, containing charred human remains. The room bore the stench of roasted, putrescent human flesh. Chief commissaire Massu was summoned to the scene locating rooms with works of art and antique furniture. A courtyard led to a small triangular room with thick walls. No furniture or windows were within but high on the walls were iron hooks. A viewing lens was concealed under wallpaper looking into the room. An outside former stable house contained a pit full of quicklime and decomposing bodies.

This scene of carnage is the starting point of a long and perplexing investigation into the circumstances that had been witnessed. David King, using archived records of the investigative processes and subsequent events, has written an account of the chief suspect Marcel Petiot. A work of fact not fiction. King records in extreme detail the lives of Petiot's purported victims, their families, his acquaintances and also backtracking on his past life leading to the present. These are set against a Paris occupied for four years by Germans. Amongst the Nazi atrocities in Paris, Germany and elsewhere, it appears that Petoit may have been undertaking his own operation, according to the investigators.He lured desperate, wealthy, ( mainly Jews), in the hope of escaping the oppressive Nazis with the promise of passage to Argentina, taking huge fees and other items as payment. The findings in rue Le Suere suggested that few, if any, actually made the trip.

David King chronicles the efforts to obtain the evidence needed for a case against Petiot and a trial. Whilst doing this he portrays Parisian life both low and high, with tales of malnourishment amongst the French people with the champagne lifestyles of the elite (high-ranking German officers, their girls and collaborators, gangsters) with scattered chapters on the society literati (Sartre, Camus, Picasso etc). Whilst adding to the timbre of Paris of this time, they do not fit in comfortably with the narrative flow of the Petiot story. The exhaustive descriptions of people and places of relevance would have benefitted from their pictorial representation, if available ( I had to make notes from my Kindle edition).

This is an in-depth well-researched book with over 200 references in the bibliography. The author provides evidence that Petiot was a mass-murderer (denied by the accused). An intelligent, articulate, cultured, witty,ingenious, ruthless,ill-tempered psychopath, of little doubt. There are questions the reader needs to decide. Was Petiot working for the French resistance, the Gestapo or himself? Did he get a fair hearing? What state of mind was he in? King ends the book with his own perspective of events, in part fact, part speculation and heresay, but interesting nonetheless. Infuriatingly, he relates the story of Raphael K (from a small book King later came across) who said he had been through the whole Petiot selection process and had escaped from improbable circumstances. We, as readers, never find out how, nor what happened to him. Despite the quibbles this is a fine and fascinating document of true events surrounding this slice of history.
P.S. Since this review, the subsequent comments confirm my thought that the thoroughness of the author would not have left any loop-holes. In view of this I would up my grading to 5 stars.
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on 12 September 2013
It has taken me ages to finish this book. It seemed to drag on and on I'm afraid, but then some historical factual books do. A very interesting story, one I'm surprised not to have heard of before, just because it was reportedly so high profile. I suppose the war outshone it in my history lessons.
I actually listened to this on "audible" which may have spoilt it a bit for me, the man reading was quite monotonous and kept putting on a silly French accent every time something was quoted.
I would recommend the book, rather than the audible version I think.
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In 1944, three months before D-Day, some Parisians in the 16th Arrondissement started complaining about the thick, acrid smoke coming from a town house at 21, Rue Le Sueur. Finally, one neighbour worried about a chimney fire, called the authorities. They discovered that the basement of the mansion, festooned with human bones, contained a coal stove burning body parts. An outbuilding contained a strange triangular room that was virtually soundproof. The former stable contained a pit of about 10 feet in depth which was filed with quicklime and rotting flesh. In this way, one of history’s most macabre episodes of serial murder was uncovered.

‘No one ever knows if he is crazy or not,’ Petiot said. ‘You can only be crazy by comparison’.

The investigation quickly focussed on the building’s owner: Dr Marcel Petiot, a quick-witted and charming medical doctor with a checkered past. Petiot had obtained reimbursement from the state for unorthodox treatments for which he had sometimes also charged the patients, and he was also implicated in narcotics dealing. Petiot also claimed to be part of a Resistance organization helping people, especially Jews, to escape from Nazi Europe - for a sizeable fee.

But as Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, chief of the Brigade Criminelle, discovered, few (if any) of Petiot’s clients made it safely to their destinations. Petiot collected their money and possessions, which he stashed away in several properties he had acquired around Nazi-dominated Paris. Just how many people did Petiot kill? Was he working for the Gestapo, or for the Resistance? Could he have been working for both, or neither?

‘Indeed, no one has ever established the total number of victims, which could be anything from a handful to 26 (the court’s opinion) 63 (Petiot’s claim), 150 (Dr Paul’s off-the-record estimate), or perhaps even more (Director of the Police Judiciaire Rene Desvaux’s guess).’

David King’s interest in this case was piqued by a contemporary account he found at an antiquarian bookshop. He was able to gain access to the police records of the case, which had been classified for sixty years. This has enabled him to provide a wealth of detail about the case, and about the Nazi-occupied Paris in which it occurred. Commissaire Massu had initially assumed that the Gestapo was behind the carnage, and didn’t question or arrest Petiot until after he received orders from the Germans. Petiot was able to evade arrest for seven months. During his last weeks of freedom, he successfully masqueraded as a Free French Army Officer investigating the case.

This is a well-paced narrative of a dreadful crime. The second half of the book focusses on Petiot’s farcical trial in 1946. So many people became involved as interested parties that the investigation and evidence became secondary. Petiot was declared guilty and sentenced to death: the complete facts of the case will never be known.

’Did Petiot have a last confession or any final words? ‘No’, he said. ‘I am a traveller who is taking all of his baggage with him.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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This enthralling book begins with the investigation of a revolting smell emanating from a house in Paris in 1944. Although the city, under occupation, has already seen endless suffering the gruesome discoveries within the house shocked even wartime Paris. Inside there were body parts in the basement, a lime pit full of bodies and a soundproofed room which resembles a torture chamber. The house belonged to a doctor - Marcel Petiot - who briefly put in an appearance to claim he worked for the resistance and was quickly allowed to disappear by police on duty. Commissaire Massu therefore lost his first battle in his attempt to solve the crime of the century.

Dr Marcel Petiot was a physician who lived with his wife of seventeen years, Georgette, and his fifteen year old son Gerard. The author outlines Petiot's early life, which shows many worrying signs of what was to come - early sadistic behaviour and an interest in pornography, bed wetting, stealing, a loner, expelled from school and yet very intelligent. He almost had a CV announcing he would be a future serial killer by todays definitions and his behaviour was compounded by WWI which left him institutionalised for three years and not discharged until 1919. However, his ambition was remarkable and he started his medical career and stood as mayor in his career. Even at this early stage though, there were accusations of stealing, lovers who disappeared or died in mysterious circumstances.

The book goes on to look at the evidence and the victims found in Petiot's house, his eventual arrest and then his trial, which started on March 18th 1948. It was expected to be, "the most sensational criminal trial in modern French history" and actors, film stars and ladies of high society flocked to the courtroom. The evidence for the prosecution weighed a ton, including so many suitcases left behind by those that had passed through Petiot's house, that the courtroom had the appearance of a station waiting room. Petiot was accused of the murder of twenty seven people, the only ones from the body parts that could be identified and who included Jews fleeing occupied Paris, gangsters and prostitues. During the trial, Petiot seemed thoroughly at ease, verbally sparring with the prosection and making the crowd laugh, signing autographs and seeming to enjoy himself hugely. Petiot himself argued that he was a member of the resistance, who had been held by the Gestapo and had only killed Germans and collaborators.

This is not only a great true crime book, but an interesting view of wartime Paris. Petiot's crimes were aided by the time, where people disappeared daily and many were living under assumed identities. When human life was declared sacred during the trial, those in the court openly laughed. It was a time when life was indeed cheap and there were those who took advantage of others desperation. This is an extremely interesting read and well researched. Lastly, I read the kindle editon of this book and illustrations were included at the very end.
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on 8 October 2012
A very good read, but does leave some questions unanswered. Most other books I've read on Petiot had him guilty in the first chapter! At least this book gives him the benifit of doubt THEN takes his story apart. All my other books on SOE, SIS, F Section and RF section etc never mention "his" resistance unit (but to be fair unknown units are still coming to light) and the author had access to the police criminal files for the first time; one would assume if there were any truth in Petiot's claims, David King would have found them. The bibliography points to many more books showing the depth of the collaboration between many of the French and the Nazi regime.
Read it!
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on 10 November 2012
I found myself engrossed at the start of the tale about the murderer and his methods, which is quite incredble but once the murderer was caught I thought the book slowed up. A tale of two halves.
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on 31 May 2013
I came across this story on the internet and had not heard of it before and had to find out more.The author does a good job at telling this story,although on a few occasions he seems to stray from the story with tales of author Albert Camus and John Paul Sartre who really have very little to do with this story.That aside,it is a compelling read as it was a very fearful time and it is hard to know if Marcel Petiot carried out these murders for monetary gain or was he actually insane.He could very easily have been working for the Germans too.It is definitely a book I would recommend even though it can be a little bit slow in parts.
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on 14 May 2013
Brilliant book really revealing about the complex situation in war time France you did,nt really know who to trust or who to believe no wonder this man could carry out these murders for profit
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on 6 October 2012
Excellent product, arrived safely on time and exactly as described, I am we'll pleased with this purchase and would buy from this seller again.
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This is true crime in the same vein as 'The Devil In The White City' - and I enjoyed it almost as much. Almost. The major problem with this book - and this is no fault of the author - is that there are so many unanswered questions with Dr Petiot's murders. There is no resolution, no clear answer to why he killed so many people or how he killed them. Was Petiot working for the Resistance, killing Nazis and collaborators and traitors as he claimed, or was he just a brutal murderer, preying on the vulnerable?

The victims are, of course, the most heartbreaking part of this story. Most were Jews, duped into believing that Dr Petiot could offer them a way out of Occupied France, to freedom in Argentina - but their path to freedom began and ended at 21 rue Le Sueur, murdered most likely for profit - for the fees for smuggling them out of the country, their positions and any small wealth they had hoped to smuggle with them. Human life was cheap in wartime France - indeed King relates how at one point in the trial the prosecution lawyer spoken of the 'sacredness' of human life, and many in the courtoom laughed.

Almost as interesting as the murders is the evocation of life in Occupied Paris. How the police worked with and around the Nazi forces, how the justice system struggled to continue under enormous pressures, how the French and Nazi media treated the case, the differences in French law. King chronicles the course of the case, the efforts to build a case against Petiot, rarely allowing his own opinions to influence his narrative. That impartiality is what leads to a lot of the uncertainty in this book - the facts that were marshalled against Petiot leave it impossible to know for certain what really happened.
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