Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Death in the City of Light" by David King (2011)

This is the true, and bizarre, tale of a serial killer in occupied Paris during World War Two. It is bizarre in more ways than one, the first being the most obvious. Imagine the Nazi's looking for a serial killer, even while they are, arguably, the cream of the crop when it comes to mass murder. Seemingly, things couldn't get much stranger; but they do.

On March 11th, 1944 Jacques Marcais and his wife awoke to a smoke filled apartment. Not ordinary chimney smoke, but a foul, noxious odor often associated with death itself. What made this even more disturbing was the fact that the couple had lived in the apartment for the past 5 days, in order to quench the foul odor emanating from the courtyard outside their windows. The odor seemed to be coming from the vacant building next door, a 2-1/2 story town house. This building, at 21 Rue Le Sueur, would become the focal point of an investigation leading to 27 murders. The real number of victims is said to be as high as 150 persons in total.

Adding to this mystery is the location of the grisly murder scene, located, as it was, in the midst of the Nazi bureaucracy, and around the corner from Gestapo headquarters itself. Who owned the building? And who were the victims? Was this the work of a Nazi death squad? Or was it associated with the French Resistance? Were the victims collaborators with the Nazi's, or were they members of the French Underground? These are the questions which confronted Frech Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, the Chief Inspector of the Brigade Criminelle. But, in the end, the real reason behind these murders will leave you aghast at the ability of man to exploit his fellow creatures.

Ascertaining the owner of the building makes the chief suspect a Doctor Marcel Petiot, a well-liked physician who treats the poor and also helps people kick their morphine habits. He was known locally as the "People's Doctor" for all of his generosity. But there are some things in his past which shed new light on this man's love of his fellow man.

In this Poe-like tale of murder in Paris, Inspector Massu must navigate a broken system of justice under the waning days of the Nazi occupation, he must wade through the cast of prostitutes and drug addicts who inhabited the world of the Doctor in order to arrive at the truth. And when he finally does charge his suspect, the trial takes place in a courtroom which quickly becomes a sort of black comedy of its own.

The Doctor is tried for all 27 murders at once, a feat which would tax the resources of any municipality today, let alone a city torn by war and partisanship. The case is not cut and dry, and the Doctor's defense is the up and coming criminal defense attorney Rene Floriot, who gives the prosecution a run for its money in a case which reads like a top notch thriller.

With some background involving the last days of the First World War, and the subsequent decades of the 20's and 30's, with their divergent economic differences, the author, David King, manages to cover all the bases in this complicated who-dun-it.

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