by Jarrod Jones. Some facts: Marcel Petiot conned people desperate to flee Nazi-occupied Paris by fooling them into thinking he was a doctor sympathetic to the French Resistance. He lured in his victims with trust—trust with their safety, trust with their bodies, trust with their very lives. And Marcel Petiot took those lives. With cyanide. With lies.
The Butcher of Paris, written by Stephanie Phillips and illustrated by Dean Kotz, Jason Wordie and Troy Peteri, doesn’t look to sensationalize an already sensational true-life story. Petiot’s infamy isn’t the focus of the book. Instead, Phillips and her team zero in on the consequences of such barbarism—the human cost that was lost amid the unfathomable death toll of World War II.
“It was easy for a city to overlook Petiot’s victims when they were confronted with the casualties associated with WWII,” Phillips tells me. “Even for students of history, these are numbers. However, each number represents an individual human life—a human with a family and story all their own.
“We lose that kind of connection when we study history as numbers and figures. Our hope is definitely to create a space where readers can view a very personal moment of history and connect with people and events.”
Ahead of its December 4 release, Stephanie Phillips spoke with DoomRocket about her upcoming true-crime saga, The Butcher of Paris.
1. Marcel Petiot’s story is a brutal one, not just in the callous savagery of Petoit’s killing, but in how someone could exploit the agonies of an individual living in a war-torn society. When you began work on ‘The Butcher of Paris’, how did you decide on what facets of this era to focus on? Surely focusing on Petiot himself would have been an exhausting one, at least emotionally.
Stephanie Phillips: While Petiot appears in the story, he is more of a shadow that is ever-present in the lives and actions of our characters. A lot like the War, we may not always see Petiot, but he has an impact on the city. The goal was to tell a story with Detective Massu and the occupied city as the central focus and then watch how these characters react and respond to these external pressures.
2. Every villain, historical and otherwise, requires a foe to pursue them. Enter Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, who investigates the Petiot case with his son, Bernard. A Holmes/Watson dichotomy versus a would-be Moriarty, maybe, but this is a story rooted in history, not fiction. Massu was in fact compromised in his work under Nazi rule, had to operate alongside the Gestapo in order to keep his position in Paris. How do you reckon with a character who was up against such a colossal moral quagmire without dedicating an entire series to them? Where do the tremulous human details go?
This series really is about Massu. Massu is the central figure that we follow through the occupied city and the case. He is our eyes into this time period, but he is also a father trying to maintain a relationship with his family during one of the darkest periods in world history. Massu is constantly faced with tough, moral decisions, but his choices will always reflect his devotion to the city and his son.
3. It appears that the first issue of ‘Butcher of Paris’ takes place just as the police have gotten wise to Petoit’s murderous scams. How are you plotting out this series? Will we be diving into the nature of Petoit’s mania at all—perhaps venturing into his charlatanism as a politician, or as a family doctor?
After the police discover these crimes, there’s a race to find the killer. Massu is working against the Gestapo to try to find Petiot and discover his motive before the Nazis can. If there is a chance that Petiot is a Nazi, or framed by the Gestapo because he is a resistance fighter, Massu wants to ensure he has the facts right. The interrogations and hunt for Petiot will take our characters and the reader through Petiot’s past as well.
4. Petoit, for all the horrors he wrought, was quite shrewd in his killing—and even more so in evading capture. After his home had been invaded by police, he secretly joined the French Forces of the Interior as “Henri Valeri” and was ultimately tasked to the investigation of Petoit—himself.
You’re working from a piece of history, and oftentimes history is exaggerated to emphasize drama—but Petoit’s story kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? But then, the next thing you’d want to avoid in the telling is sensationalism. How do you tell a story about an exploited people—exploited by such an evil bastard—without letting the garish details swamp the narrative?
The entire team has done our best to keep the information accurate. Of course, there are changes and liberties we have to take given scope of the story (5 issues) compared to the scope of Petiot’s crimes. Instead of creating a story that is situated completely in facts about the case, then, I really tried to write something that you can’t find in a Wikipedia article. This meant asking a lot of questions about the people living in the occupied city. How did the city respond to Petiot? What was it like for a detective to operate in an occupied city? What happens when people forget how to be empathetic?
5. You’ve said that the primary theme of ‘The Butcher of Paris’ is empathy—or the lack of empathy, especially during a time of such atrocity and horror. Petiot was diagnosed with mental illnesses that may have inhibited his sense of empathy for other people—surely he was at least a sociopath—so where will this theme take root in ‘The Butcher of Paris’?
WWII is still the deadliest military conflict in history with a death toll sitting at 85 million. The Normandy campaign of 1944 saw 226,386 casualties for the Allies, and another 240,000 German losses. From 1941-1945, six million Jews were killed as part of the Holocaust. Petiot killed an estimated 60-200 people during the occupation. It was easy for a city to overlook Petiot’s victims when they were confronted with the casualties associated with WWII. Even for students of history, these are numbers. However, each number represents an individual human life—a human with a family and story all their own. We lose that kind of connection when we study history as numbers and figures. Our hope is definitely to create a space where readers can view a very personal moment of history and connect with people and events.
6. Where does complicity come in? What about the officers who may have initially dismissed missing persons cases when Petoit was taking full advantage of the occupation, simply because the Gestapo ran the police and these victims were Jewish? How does Commissaire Massu’s story fit in with this?
That will be up to the reader to decide. We are definitely not looking to assign blame (except Nazis… they absolutely are to blame). Our team can’t pretend to understand how the French citizens or police officers were struggling under the occupation. Massu will offer a glimpse of the struggles of dealing with war, politics, occupying forces, a serial killer, and raising a son. He is only human, and that means he is sometimes flawed.
7. Reading about Petoit’s case reminded me of the serial killer H.H Holmes, another killer charlatan, only he operated in Chicago during the whirlwind construction of the 1893 World’s Fair. After I read the first issue of ‘The Butcher of Paris’, I felt that it shared a parallel to Erik Larson’s ‘Devil in the White City’—a book that captured much of what was happening in Chicago at the time, more even than the horrors Holmes brought to the zeitgeist. How will you factor in the state of how the French lived during Nazi occupation? How does capturing the essence of an era underscore the telling of such a terrible story?
I’m a huge fan of Larson’s work and think he does a really amazing job of making history personal to the reader. Massu in Butcher definitely becomes the personal link for the reader to view French life during the occupation and feel that tension between French citizens and occupying forces.
8. One thing about ‘The Butcher of Paris’ that stands out to me is that it speaks to our contemporary fascination with frauds. Theranos, Fyre Festival, “The SoHo Grifter”, etc. But phonies have always been at our door, haven’t they? There with a patented-new bottle of snake oil, standing at a podium claiming to have all the answers to our societal woes. Why do you feel people are attracted to stories about charlatans? Is it more about their inevitable comeuppance, or the sheer audacity of what they do?
I’m not sure I have a good answer for why people are fascinated by frauds. In the case of Petiot, I think it’s especially disheartening because people were operating on trust to safely travel out of the city. People were in such a state of desperation that this kind of trust was really their only option and Petiot exploited that. Currently, with the internet and various social media platforms, I can see where trust and distrust are even more complex.
9. In telling a story where empathy is on the ropes, where brutality is preferred by those in power over justice, and knowing where the story ultimately ends up—both for Petiot and the Second World War—do you seek out a moral for the reader to ruminate on as the final pages fall? Or do you leave them pondering how such atrocities became possible in the first place, and what we and our leaders are doing now to avoid such things in the future?
There’s definitely a little of both throughout the series, but I guess you’ll just have to see as the story unfolds!
10. When you’re neck-deep in period research, falling into one rabbit hole after the other, what do you listen to? Do you seek out recordings from that era and try for total immersion?
Nope! Silence. I like music too much and would be too distracted by it if I tried listened to it while working.
‘The Butcher of Paris’ hits stores December 4. You can pre-order it now. (Diamond Code: OCT190298)
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