When Crime History Is Stranger Than Fiction
When writing Death in the City of Light, about a doctor turned serial killer, author David King says it helped to get into the minds of the Gestapo investigators and the murderer. “I think about what we knew right when the murders were discovered,” he explains. “It’s more realistic.” The page-turner recalls the tale of charming Dr. Marcel Petiot, who was finally caught chopping up body parts and committing gruesome crimes in the 1940s. Taking place in the wartime underground of Paris, it’s a nonfiction account that reads like a perfect thriller.
During our interview King reflects on how he turned a piece of history into a book we couldn’t put down:
Q: How did you stumble on this hidden piece of history?
A: I was teaching at the University of Kentucky at the time and preparing to give a lecture on World War II. At the bookstore I stumbled across a memoir from a wartime soldier, and it mentioned these killings. There were chopped-up faces and all these unanswered questions. It’s a really strange, terrible story, and it stuck with me. I was working on another book at the time—this was over 10 years ago. [The story] has been sitting for a while, and now I felt like I had to finish it and find the answers.
Q: So how did you start your research process?
A: I tried to get back in the time of [Nazi-occupied Paris] and to forget what we know today. I tried to get back in the mindset by reading newspapers from those years, memoirs, diaries, and any other primary sources I could find. Everything in the book is true—I tried to write it that way. Even the weather is accurate. Usually you can find something in a person’s diary that describes the weather at that time.
Q: In the book, the doctor is not just some deranged serial killer, and his softer side was surprising. Was it this dichotomy that drew you to him as a character?
A: Yes, he’s an incredibly intelligent man, and he’s extremely charming. He gave free medical care to people for years, yet there was this other side, where he did disturbing and disgusting crimes.
Q: This seems like the perfect mystery novel, and of course it takes place in what’s known as the most romantic city in the world. How does wartime Paris play into the tale?
A: I love Paris, so Paris was extra. World War II was almost too good to be true. If I tried to write it as fiction no one would believe me. On another level, it tells us about Nazi-occupied Paris, and the challenges of catching a killer. There were a lot of people disappearing at the time. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, you could go visit someone’s house and the next day they’d be gone and there would be no one there. A lot of people wanted to leave Paris, and Dr. Petiot played on people wanting to escape and people wanting to leave. He would tell them that he could help them get out of Paris. He would say, we’ll smuggle you out of Paris to the mountains and put you on a boat to Argentina for new life in a new world. He gets very rich because people bring in their valuables in hopes of leaving. It’s meticulously planned.
Q: You visited Paris on your research trips. What were those like?
A: I went to Paris and tried to track down Dr. Petiot’s haunts. All of these places are not on the map today. They don’t have a lot of plaques up to help identify buildings. Dr. Petiot’s house, the place where he lived during these killings, is now next to a McDonald’s. The townhouse itself where the murders took place was destroyed and rebuilt in 1952. Still, I find that this helps the imagination and it all helps me visualize. On my last trip there, the French police opened up their archives that have been classified since the war, and they let me have access to the entire classified file. I couldn’t photograph anything or photocopy the files, but I could read and take notes. I was there writing like a madman. It was fascinating, and it was my most extraordinary experience. I was lucky because they opened the archives at the very last second, right as I was completing the book.
Q: Do you need to know multiple languages to understand all the primary sources, including the classified files?
A: Yes, I always read in the original language. I can speak Swedish. As far as reading, I read about half a dozen European languages, including French and German. I wouldn’t say I speak it fluently, but I can read it.
Q: Given all the research, is it tougher to write crime history rather than a fictional story?
A: I’ve never written fiction, so I don’t know. When you’re writing nonfiction I try to get everything, all the details. If I don’t know it, I’ll say it or I’ll put it in the notes. I have complete respect for people who write fiction. Sometimes I think it would be nice if I could make it all up, but I just love history. I’ve loved reading [history] since I’ve been a kid; it never occurred to me to do fiction. I just write it the way I like to read it.
Q: Was getting into the mind of a serial killer difficult on your own psyche?
A: I know some other colleagues talk about how they get depressed; I fortunately did not have that. I was more hesitant sometimes, and I probably toned it down more. I tried to do other things, keep active and keep balanced. It was dark at times, but I don’t think I ever got depressed.
Q: What would you like your readers to come away with?
A: For me it’s about the story and it’s about the history. This is history at its darkest, and it’s about a true crime. It’s just awful what he did to escape detection, like the chopping of the bodies and removing the faces and the fingertips. It’s an important story the way he played on people’s hopes and desperations. It’s something to keep in mind.
David King’s "Death in the City of Light" will be available Sept. 20. For more information visit randomhouse.com.