The notion of a detective story set in the Third Reich is intriguing to anyone interested in the genre. A lone detective or policeman pursuing justice in an unjust world is a common theme for mystery writers — Soviet detectives in both the USSR and Czchoslovakia, a Chinese police officer (Qiu Xiaolong), a South African cop during apartheid (James McClure) — many such books exist, but Nazi Germany is the extreme case. Various writers from Durrenmatt to Philip Kerr have looked at police chasing murderers in this society where mass murder is a political feature. Their focus is on the detective, of course, because it is his moral dilemma that is interesting: how can one both pursue murderers and serve a murderous state? Is hunting a serial killer a useless exercise when killing is commonplace?
Marcel Petiot murdered at least 26 and perhaps more than 160 people between 1930 and 1944. He was arrested by both the Gestapo and Paris police during the German occupation of France. Both sets of cops freed him. Each of the police departments had political reasons for doing so.
Born in 1897, Petiot had a troubled youth and committed various petty crimes. At one point he was diagnosed as insane. He was gassed during the First World War and charged with theft from the convalescent homes where he recovered. After being sent back into the lines, Petiot shot himself in the foot to escape further action. Once again, he was labelled insane, though under the circumstances, one might question the diagnosis. After the war, Petiot returned to his studies and obtained a medical degree. His practice was irregular and may have involved abortions and selling drugs. He himself was a user of narcotics.
Petiot was living in the town of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in 1926 when he began going out with a young woman who subsequently disappeared. She may have been Petiot’s first victim, but the police wrote her off as a runaway. That same year, Petiot ran for mayor and won after employing some shady tactics. He immediately began embezzling town funds. In 1930, one of his patients was robbed and murdered in her home. Petiot came under suspicion but his accuser, another of his patients, soon died as did a woman who accused him of selling narcotics. By 1931, there were so many complaints about Petiot that he was suspended from office. Immediately, he ran for Councillor and was elected but was thrown off Council in 1932 when it was discovered he had been stealing electricity. But Petiot had already given up on the Yonne district and moved to Paris.
In Paris, Petiot was suspected of performing abortions and peddling drugs. He was charged with shoplifting but pled that he suffered from kleptomania and was let off on the condition that he seek psychiatric help. In 1942 he was charged with selling drugs and convicted even though the two witnesses against him disappeared. He was fined. He began selling phony medical disability papers to men who wanted to escape being shipped to Germany as forced labor. Meanwhile, Petiot had discovered a more lucrative racket.
As Europe descended through the 1930s, many people began seeking a way out. It wasn’t that easy for someone without the proper papers to emigrate, however, and as the German grip tightened in 1940, became impossible. Petiot claimed to run a secret escape network — Jews, political refugees, and, later on, Resistance members paid him to escape the country. They were led into a strange, triangular room at one end of the house, then murdered probably with cyanide, though Petiot’s methods may have varied. The room had a peephole through which Petiot could watch the victim but exactly why is unclear. He may have been watching for the proper moment to commit the murder, he may have been watching a poisoned individual die, he may have been entertaining himself by observing people being tortured — or so Paris tabloids later suggested.
Petiot made enough from his scheme to hire three men whose job it was to steer victims his way. They claimed to be members of the French underground and it is possible that they thought Petiot was actually with the Resistance. At any rate, they attracted the notice of the Gestapo who sent an undercover agent to try to discover more. The agent vanished. The Gestapo arrested Petiot’s henchmen in early 1943 and tortured them until they confessed that they were taking escapees to Dr. Petiot. The Gestapo then picked up the doctor in May and questioned him. A thorough interrogation over a period of months persuaded the police that no one was escaping via Petiot and that neither he nor his henchmen had any connection to the Resistance. Possibly because they recognized a fellow-traveler, Petiot was freed by the local Gestapo in January, 1944.
In March, one of Petiot’s neighbors complained that foul black smoke was coming from his house. Firemen discovered a coal fire in the basement where a corpse was being burned. Body parts were scattered all over the house. Petiot was arrested. He told the police that the corpses were being burned for the Resistance, that they were Nazis and collaborators. The police were sympathetic and let him go. In August, Paris was liberated and the police began searching for Petiot once again. Petiot wrote a letter to the police claiming that he had been framed by the Gestapo who had dumped the bodies in his house. He still claimed to be a Resistance fighter but now the police were suspicious and began a manhunt for the doctor. Under an assumed name, Petiot himself joined the hunters. Finally, in October, Petiot was recognized and arrested. He was carrying a pistol, a large wad of money, and 50 sets of identification papers.
Petiot was charged with the murders of 27 people, since that seemed to be the number of individuals who had contributed the body parts in his house. He was also indicted for various counts of theft and other crimes for a total of 135 charges. He continued to embellish his story even after his trial began in March, 1946. He still claimed to be a Resistance member, though no one connected with the organization ever corroborated this. He also claimed to have killed more than 60 people — all Nazis, he said. The jury found him guilty on all counts. Petiot was guillotined in May, 1945.
French authorities suspect that Petiot’s victims amounted to more than 160 over his career — the 60 he admitted to were only those he could pass off as righteous executions of Nazis. It is unlikely that Petiot killed many Nazis — his victims were those wanting to escape the regime. He seems a total sociopath and his murderous career has some resemblance to that of the American H.H. Holmes. Both these men murdered for profit. Petiot is thought to have taken some 200,000,000 Francs from his victims — around 60,000,000 of today’s Euros.
In terms of the original inquiry above, Petiot managed to get away with a great many crimes in his life but the murder spree of 1939 – 44 was directly made possible by wartime conditions. He was set free twice by police officers who may have thought him a hero but certainly considered him no threat to the nation they served, be it Germany or Free France. These were not men serving ideals of justice but simply servants of the state, doing their duty as they saw it.
The main source on Petiot is Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King. King has had several interviews published.