As a youngster, Marcel Petiot tried to boil the family cat and, when thwarted by his horrified mother, succeeded in smothering the beast later that night.
Worse was to come.
Before he was guillotined in 1946, Petiot may have murdered more than 100 people in the four years that the Nazis occupied France.
The number is vague because so little was left of his victims once the bits and pieces were shoved into an oven or tossed into a lime pit.
Petiot was ultimately charged with butchering 27 men and women -- most of them Jews, though he was hardly encouraged, it seems, by any Nazi overlords.
“Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris” is author David King’s weirdly absorbing caper through a sinister French capital darkened by a 10 p.m. curfew and festooned with Third Reich bunting.
King starts off with the grisly findings at a smoke-belching mansion in the rue Le Sueur on March 11, 1944. A charred hand is still cooking in the coal stove; body parts litter the basement room. Gagging from the smell, members of the fire brigade stagger into the street.
The owner of the mansion was, of course, little Marcel! He’d grown up into a mad doctor with a pretty wife, a normal son and a lot of flabbergasted friends and acquaintances.
“It’s unbelievable. He’s a man so sweet, so calm,” said a woman who worked with the homicide department.
Even more unbelievably, the officer she called Captain Henri-Jean Valeri was, in fact, Petiot, who had sprouted a lot of new facial hair and smoothly inserted himself into the ongoing investigation of himself.
The police spent seven months hunting him down, unearthing a string of aliases, suspicious disappearances and a startling number of suitcases.
These suitcases, hidden in an attic of an electronics shop in the Burgundy region, numbered 49 and, as the commissaire began opening them, they revealed what he called “the most tragic cargo.”
The doctor had stuffed them with handbags, evening gowns, jackets, socks, slippers, belts, eyeglasses, hairpins -- some 1,760 items in all.
These were the things once worn by the frightened people who had come to Petiot believing he could smuggle them to safety. In fact, he took their money, killed them and hoarded their belongings.
An underground network of lowlifes who preyed on Jews and other frightened people benefited as well from his psychopathic enterprise. At times, he posed as the patriotic Dr. Eugene, who risked his life for members of the Resistance in their battle against the Germans.
Petiot seems to have been that rarest of creatures, a mass murderer even the Gestapo found creepy. About a year before the startling discovery in the rue Le Sueur, Gestapo agents had hauled him into a small room and tortured him with dental equipment, apparently thinking he was helping Jews get out of France. But then they let him go.
Why? Even King, who had unusual access to restricted police dossiers, finds the Gestapo connection puzzling.
Neither is he sure just how Petiot killed so many people with such ease. As a doctor, he had easy access to cyanide and could have injected his victims with a syringe. Or maybe he gassed them, creating his own mini-Auschwitz for the sad, gullible people hoping for help.
By the time Petiot stood trial in the fall of 1944, France had just rushed into the light as the Occupation gave way to the chaos of the Liberation.
Unsurprisingly, Petiot loved his trial, preening until the end, joshing with the spectators and generally besting the prosecutors. The accusations were simply incredible, he exclaimed. He expected to be given a medal for killing Nazis as a brave member of the Resistance! His trial was a farce!
Some of the stories unfolded by King would have benefited from a scalpel; his cast of characters can get confusing. Still, his descriptions of the underworld are fascinating and I appreciated his attention to detail.
That jar of genitals really lingers in the mind.
“Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris” is from Crown (416 pages, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)