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House of Horrors in Nazi Occupied Paris
on 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.