Monday, 13 December 2010

Book Review ~ "Die In Paris"

POSTED IN:  ~ PublicationsReviews ~ Books ~ Novels

Die In Paris
A true story of compulsion and murder
by Marilyn Z. Tomlins
Raider Publishing International 2010
ISBN 9781616671211

Book Review

Having just written about the informative and cheerfully colourful Guide des Curiosités Funéraires à Paris (Guide to the Funerary Curiosities of Paris), the irony of following up with the extremely dark Die In Paris is not lost on me, but here we go!

Die In Paris is the novelised true life account of a certain 'Dr.' Marcel Petiot, supposed French Resistance hero who claimed he ran an escape network for Jews and others fleeing the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War in occupied France. The real truth lies elsewhere.

He did indeed remove would-be fleers, and their most valuable possessions, from the imminent grasp of the Gestapo, but in a way they could never have imagined, even in their foulest nightmares. I'm giving nothing away by simply quoting from the blurb on the back cover to give you an idea of what was going on:

Dr. Satan? The author leaves us to decide
"A spring night in Paris. The most beautiful city in the world is dark and silent. Uncertainty devils the air. As does normality: War time normality. The Nazi flag flutters from the Eiffel Tower. The Parisians are huddled inside.

"Suddenly the night's stillness is shattered by sirens and excited voices. For days foul smoke has been pouring from the chimney of an uninhabited house close to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Police and fire fighters are racing to the house to break down the bolted door. They make a spine-chilling discovery. The remains of countless human beings are being incinerated in a furnace in the basement. In a pit in an outhouse quicklime consumes still more bodies."

"Neighbors say they hear banging, pleading, sobbing and cries for help come from the house deep into night. They say a shabbily-dressed man on a green bike pulling a cart behind him comes to the house, always at dawn, or dusk. The house belongs to Dr. Marcel Petiot - a good-looking, charming, caring, family physician who lives elsewhere in the city with his wife and teenage son..."

Coal and flesh burner in Dr.Petiot's basement
The story starts, curiously, with what seems like the end: the discovery of the bodies. But the doctor has not been apprehended at this point and from here an uneasy investigation is sparked by the collaborating French police, uncertain just how deeply they should dig in case they discover too many more Nazi atrocities which would put their own jobs, and lives, in peril.

From this chilling opening we are taken back to the twists and turns Petiot's childhood and adult life, which allow us to understand, if not sympathise with, how the Doctor's poorly maintained Paris town house could have become the gruesome grave to so many poor souls. Or what was left of them.

What was left behind...
I hardly ever have the time to read such books, but I was intrigued, as Ms. Tomlins obviously was, by this tale of depravity and, fundamentally, madness; or perhaps some form of tightly controlled, compulsive and pure amorality. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the Paris link and the 'true story' aspect I don't think I would have bothered with Die In Paris, but in the end I was treated to a rich double whammy of an experience: a gripping tale in the best tradition of dark crime writing set in the streets I thought I was so familiar with, coupled to plenty of period ambiance and detail from the times of the notorious 'collaboration' I was keen to learn more about, when the French government of the time cooperated with the occupying Nazis.

Although I have no experience as a critic of novels, I can see that the author's voice is highly efficient and the story chugs along at a very satisfying pace. I was toying with the phrase ascetic prose, in the sense that she doesn't at first seem to inject much characterisation to the cold hard facts she presents in the novel. As I got more and more into the novel, however, personalities did start to flesh themselves out, and this very absence of embellishment at the beginning in fact added to the story's compellingness and pace. The focus is firmly on the events and facts, the conversations reported with almost newspaper-like clarity, and we are left, to a great extent, to inject our own emotions and assumptions and, given the subject matter, this isn't difficult to do.

Georgette, Petiot's wife
In fact, this 'permission' from the author to deduce how people are feeling ourselves has actually been one  of the most satisfying aspects of the book for me. References are often made to those who wrote about these events later, or who reported on them in the newspapers of the day, and this gives us the impression that we are almost there in the midst of the action.

We finally arrive at the moment described at the beginning, the discovery of tens of decomposing and half-burnt corpses in the Paris townhouse just off the avenue Foch, around two thirds of the way through the book. The rest then concentrates on Petiot's subsequent trial and the tension mounts right up to the inevitable conclusion and we accompany this extraordinary man to his destiny, if not with compassion then with undeniable pathos.

La Maison d'Arrêt de la Santé, in the 14th arrondissement

I wrote this review as I was reading the book and I just finished about five minutes ago. I'm left feeling... perhaps shell-shocked isn't the right expression but it's something akin. Drained, maybe. 

The fact that it was a true story; the fact that the author is far closer to Petiot than we would ever imagine; the paper-thin boundaries that sometimes exist between brilliance and pure barbarism... all these things go to make up a read I will remember for a long long time as I troll the streets of Paris looking into the darker corners which are so often more interesting, and more dangerous, than the brightly lit avenues to a city chronicler's eye.

© 2010 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly with suggestions, questions and requests, thanks.


Susan said...

OMG. Just when you think nothing can surprise or shock you, something new is revealed. Thanks for the book review!

Anonymous said...

I have also read the book and it is indeed exceptional for many of the reasons the reviewer describes. It's certainly gripping and unforgettable - however much one might wish it were otherwise. Narrative fiction as gut churning page turner? Whatever next? Surely this would make a great film. Salute - Marilyn Tomlins!

Anonymous said...

Great review. I'm looking forward to my copy arriving, as it appeals to my taste for the macabre and sounds like an intriguing story written by somebody who has very thoroughly researched the subject and knows what she's talking about.

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