In a city gripped with the terror of Nazi occupation, French police discover a house of horrors in the midst of a trendy Paris neighborhood. Piles of limbs and torsos, burning flesh, and a decomposing pit of corpses fill the residence of a prominent doctor. Investigators have an enormous amount of work on their hands, not only in the manhunt for the alleged murderer, Dr. Marcel Petiot, but in discovering motive and identifying the enormous amount of remains. The tedium of sifting through the fragments of body parts that have literally been stripped of all identifying features is all but impossible. To determine Dr. Petiot’s victims, they must first identify who has gone missing during his alleged murder spree, no easy task in a city where people disappear regularly. Deportment of Jews and abduction by the Gestapo are common, but slowly, detectives determine who had ties with the suspect.
This aspect of the investigation is where the story gets tedious. There are so many individuals who have connections to the Doctor, and the details of all these associates are a bit tiresome. French gangsters, innocent Jews looking to escape the country, and colleagues who could have uncovered Dr. Petiot’s questionable practices are on the list. There’s also the network of the Resistance, communists, Germans and neighbors to keep track of, and all the French names were difficult to remember.
It is once the trial gets underway that the Doctor displays the full depravity of his madness. He does not deny that he killed people, nor does he fully confess to how or why. He claims he only killed collaborators and criminals, and that he was an integral part of the Resistance. He is defiant and remorseless, infuriating prosecutors. Though the author is never able to determine with certainty what investigators were unable to prove and the secrets that Petiot took with him to the grave, I think he did a good job using the evidence and testimony available to speculate the truth. It’s a bizarre and gruesome story, but fascinating in the atmosphere of a city occupied by a tyrant and victimized by a serial killer.