Six years ago, reading a book about World War Two, the name ‘Petiot’ caught my eye. Having heard of him some dozen years earlier, I thought that I would like to know more about him.
Because Dr Petiot is part of France’s inglorious Second World War history, it was not easy researching him; none of my French friends wanted to speak of him. There were also those who had not heard of him; they knew about Jack the Ripper, but Petiot was the mystery man.
I decided to write a book about Petiot when, over dinner, one night, I mesmerised my English and American guests with his story. They thought I was making it up.
A few months into my research, which would take two years, I discovered that Petiot was buried in a mass grave in a cemetery my apartment building overlooks. Those who lie buried there with him are also guillotined murderers. Oddly, the cemetery had become visible from my windows only after the demolition of a large building. And that building was demolished six years ago, at the time that the name Petiot caught my eye.
Despite that I am a true crime writer, I am not a macabre person, and could not even read a Stephen King novel, but I can say with honesty that Petiot grabbed hold of me. For four years – two of research and two of writing – I ‘lived’ with him, or, he had come to live with me; he was never out of my thoughts. I used to go and sit at his grave trying to get into his head to understand how he had killed his victims because that was a detail he had taken to that grave with him. Did I succeed? Yes, I think I did get into his head.
If I must choose one thing of all the things I’ve learnt from writing Die in Paris, I will say that I’ve become convinced that capital punishment is wrong. I used to believe that those who kill must be killed. I believed this when I began researching Petiot. He was guillotined for the murder of twenty-six people. The police thought that he had killed more. The police chief said: “To be on the safe side, I will settle for a hundred a fifty.”
Writing the book, I had gone through each of those twenty-six murders, I knew exactly what Petiot had done, yet, writing of his death upset me. When I wrote the ‘dead man walking’ scene I cried. Today, I say that no matter what a man, or a woman, had done, there must be a way other than execution to make them pay for their crime.
Die in Paris is publshed by Raider