Darkness in the City of Light

Tony Curtis
Publication Date: 
Monday, November 1, 2021
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Shortlisted for the Paul Torday Memorial Prize


“A tour de force... a highly readable novel and a splendid union of documentation and imaginative reconstruction, as well as a convincing rendering of different voices. I was enthralled…” – Jeremy Hooker

Paris is an extraordinary city, never more so than during the German occupation, with all the tensions, accommodations, resistances and paradoxes which that entailed. Civilised German officers engage in Parisian culture while their colleagues torture and kill in the city; French citizens measure what needs to be sacrificed in order to survive, or to be free. Morality is more sharply in focus than ever, and more expendable.

Against this background, and at the centre of the novel, moves Marcel Petiot, doctor, collaborator or resistance fighter, psychopath and serial murderer. He is the embodiment of the chaos and brutality of war, of the evil and inhumanity of dictatorship. As Curtis’s novel progresses and awareness of Petiot and his actions grows, so too does his presence in the book. With the liberation of Paris, Petiot is at its centre, forced into new roles and new conspiracies to avoid trial and the guillotine. Truth and fiction blur, fundamentally, plausibility is tested, answers are few and questions multiply. Who was Petiot? Perhaps he himself did not know. Certainly the people he killed did not.

Stretching backwards and forwards within the twentieth century, and with a cast including Picasso, Braque, Sartre, Hemingway and Lee Miller, this remarkable multi-form novel combines fiction, journals, poetry and images to investigate what war can let loose, and how evil can dominate a man. Its collage technique reflects the continual shifts of life in the city of light.


Watch Tony in conversation with Matthew Jarvis about the book at the online launch



Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Sunday, April 3, 2022

If you stand at the end of the raised platform of the Trocadero, and look down over the parapet to view the manicured gardens that lead to the Eiffel Tower, you might not be aware that you’re following more or less in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler. Flanked, on a June day in 1940, by his architect Albert Speer and Arno Breker, the Reich’s sculptor in chief, the Fuhrer surveyed the hitherto biggest prize in his conquistadorial career, from an entirely symbolic vantage point. Not one to waste an opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of victory and the subjugation of an old enemy, we needn’t doubt his choice of location in the dead heart of Paris, just as we shouldn’t be surprised at the signing of the terms of French surrender in the same railway carriage at Compiègne wherein the Treaty of Versailles was ratified in 1918.

Taken from a position somewhere below, and directly before, the Tower, the cover image of Tony Curtis’ absorbing new novel echoes that same sense of hubris. And the collective grievance that was rendered incendiary by the Nazi occupation and liberation of France, is one of the motors for Curtis’ foray into the internecine madness that followed. Relying heavily on an astonishing wealth of research, Curtis’ book rejects conventional narrative forms in favour of a patchwork assembly of contemporary ‘witness’ statements and observations which build to create a near-dystopian picture of a city in turmoil. The ‘talking heads’ emerge from several sides of a divide whose border is rendered necessarily fluid: complicated ethically, and sometimes judicially, by the presence of Vichy collaborators, the Gestapo on every street corner, the Resistance, and the lumpen populace who find themselves trapped in a maelstrom of contradiction and general anxiety, Curtis’ complex landscape turns increasingly dark and violent.

The poet and novelist’s glossary of the significant players in the dramatis personae reads like a  Revolutionary  Directoire, for the excess of fratricidal bloodletting cannot fail to recall that earlier round of implosive insanity. The mercurial, deluded figure of Marcel Petiot, upon whom the narrative hinges, represents the extremity of madness, the debased level to which human nature may stoop when obliged into penury and dependence by the Wehrmacht and their Parisian administrative puppets. Petiot is Conrad’s Kurtz, a maverick Svengali who dispenses justice according to his own rules, and murders and maims with the tacit approval of both sides: as a ‘doctor’ working patriotically in behalf of the Resistance, and as an emissary of the Third Reich, exposing their underground activities to the secret services. For several years Petiot practices his murderous campaign with impunity, proclaiming outrage at the suggestion of improbity, and he remains elusive, even unto the guillotine. The circling of Petiot continues unabated throughout Curtis’ multi-layered story – the narrative’s trajectory observes a linear chronology, but is shadowed by another history, tracing causes and familial consequences - and if Petiot’s lies are unconvincing, his condition is a symptom of, and metaphor for, a much wider existential malaise.

And that terrible inferno is drawn with perspicacious skill, giving vent to each arc as it intersects with, or diverges from, its inflammatory opposite: the German Officer whose proclivities bespeak cognitive dissonance as though it were a commonplace; the ‘decadent’ Jewish artists and musicians who are shipped off to the ‘departure lounge’ of Drancy for processing and onward transmission to Ravensbruck or Auschwitz; the British soldiers who pick up the postwar pieces; and lastly the pitiless ‘good doctor’, Petiot himself, who’s self-proclaimed medical training convinces many of his veracity.

But Curtis’ greatest triumph in a book of wonderful, authentically-rendered prose testimonies, is realised during the liberation of Paris: the release valve of celebration, as enjoined in the hubristic outpourings of writers, artists and war photographers who flock to the city, borders on self-indulgent lunacy; the definitive meaning of their actions is best conferred in the tranquility of hindsight. Not least in the figure of the swaggering Ernest Hemingway, who takes to the adulation of the streets like a god to grateful shadows:

“Hemingway arrived like a loud storm. Bourbon, cigars, a box
of grenades ‘A present for my friend Picasso’. The next day he
presented me with what was left of an SS uniform he said he’d
from the body of a Boche he’d killed. A story teller”.

Curtis’ tableau is both preposterous and narcotic. The carnival of seduced picaresques who foregather in the bars and hotels of the capital - Picasso, Philby, Orwell, Lee Miller, Dietrich, Chevalier – is symptomatic, also, of a landscape of naked extremities. Samuel Beckett’s fragmented reading of a dominion of waste is pivotal to a narrative of war, of religious corruption, of decay and renewal:

“Post-war St Lô ...the sudden scurry of rats
above my head
in the ruins of everything…
and the necessary damage of war…
…rats, impervious to bombing it would appear
not the bodies they feed on…
it is a system of cycle nothing goes
to waste at this time but time
clearing up the havoc…”

The end, for Petiot, is as psychopathically defiant as the absurdity of his self-belief is unwavering. A fitting conclusion to the hideous deformity of a life, the drama of Madame Guillotine demands the cleanest of breaks, if only to draw a line under a complex and troublous past. The ‘goodnight kiss’ she delivers signifies a sleep before a better day.

Tony Curtis’ fine novel is a synthesis of negotiated truths, a harmonising of belief from many disparate testimonies, and it is to his huge credit that the picture he paints is both disturbing, and coherent.

Review in Planet 246

Friday, April 1, 2022

“Both the oxymoron of the title and the frontispiece quotation ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale’ (D.H. Lawrence) should prepare us for a novel of intrigue and complexity... This is not so much an epistolary novel, more a collage of writings, some fiction written by the author, some reports from real people, and diary entries from fictional character. This gives a very fractured narrative offering multiple points of view. The different fonts, particularly at the beginning, create a sense of authenticity... but we see that this, like art, is illusory... The book constantly plays with notions of truth and fiction – what you see if not what you get... In a sense the real truth lies in the endurance through life... In the end it is a haunting picture, one where horrors and graphic cruelty are juxtaposed with the beauty that is created by people either in their small acts of kindness or their grand acts of art and bravery.”– Yvette Vaughn Jones


Review by Nathan Munday, Wales Arts Review

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

A multi-form, genre-bending novel set during an era of fear and tyranny in Nazi-occupied Paris.

Asking relatives about their wartime memories was something I enjoyed doing during those long Sunday afternoons. Images appear, even now, like postcards from places I’ve never visited – the orange strip of Swansea’s skyline, the drumming Luftwaffe, iron crosses disturbing the early snow, and the edginess of a bruised Berlin – each pinned somewhere deep inside me. I guess that these sanitised scenes formed a ‘Great Escape’ for the younger self, but the reality is, I had no idea about the despair that each one entailed. We all do it to some degree: capturing specimens from those perplexing times, bottling them up, and studying them through the cloudy glass of hindsight. 

We do this before the eyewitnesses die, lest we forget. 

I recently tried to raise that ominous period with my wife’s Dutch relatives, but it was getting awkward. “It was a hushed-up time”, whispered Jenna, hoping that I wouldn’t press them any further. I should have known better. The Dutch suffered terribly during the Nazi occupation.   

For better or for worse, what happens in war, stays in war. Does it? No. Tony Curtis’s thrilling new novel, Darkness in the City of Light, doesn’t shy away from the idea of ‘evil’ and ‘darkness’ seeping out of that period of flexible morality. Its Tableaux Parisiens is a genre-defying survey of a fissiparous city whose inhabitants ‘move in the shadows’. This is a city where the Gestapo are always ‘a few streets away’, where nothing is ‘my business’, and where ‘cries of help in the distance’ are repeatedly ignored. Many of these shadows never see light again especially after entering a certain ‘house in the Sixteenth’. Everyone seems to take these stories ‘with a pinch of salt’. After all, ‘what can you believe these days?’ is a recurring mantra running through the novel.  

At first the story is confusing, the different fonts are cryptic, and the murder case is difficult to follow. Stretching backwards and forwards through the twentieth century, we don’t always understand why a particular person is speaking or whether a piece of prose is real or counterfactual. Things do eventually fall into place just like one of those gripping Netflix documentaries binge-watched into the early hours.

The French flaps provide us with a dissected face, an embodiment even, for the evil that emerged onto the boulevards of Europe. His name was Marcel Petiot. This Jekyll and Hyde looks straight at us. Is he a doctor, collaborator, Maquisard, psychopath, and/or serial murderer? 

Nobody really knows. 

History suggests a liar extraordinaire. Posing as a quasi-messiah for the outcasts, these so-called ‘enemies of France’ – Jews, prostitutes, resistance fighters, and criminals – were wooed unto him with the carrot of freedom. This offering of false hope was perhaps what repulsed me the most as I read.

There was talk of an underground escape route, a house in the Sixteenth, but who knows what is real, actual and what is just rumour and despair? 

This ‘bereted’ angel of light suddenly metamorphosed, poisoning his desperate victims before keeping their valuables for himself. A macabre list trickles down the first page eerily reminiscent of the records of Auschwitz or Treblinka – the 60 and the 6 million savagely murdered. When caught, Petiot’s defence was that he was working for the Resistance and that these were all traitors and collaborators. 

Curtis cleverly curates this documentary on paper. Weaving poetry with prose, he reveals the limits of language, showing us how different fonts changes the way we look at a story or the way in which we view its speakers. There are Holocaust allusions throughout making its Parisian setting microcosmic. David Llewellyn, in his review for Nation.Cymru, mentions how Curtis gives a voice to the disappeared, ‘often feel[ing] like a final act of restorative justice’:  

Fool! Didn’t you know

the dead stick to you.

You may wash us off your hands,

but we are inside you. 

Monsters haunt the pages alongside those famous figures like Picasso and Hemingway. The obvious ghouls parade the front and back covers: sightseers in their leather boots and swastika sleeves, and the mug shot of Dr Satan split in half. However, this book suggests a darkness running far deeper than the Nazi germ or the unusual maniac. In the spirit of Baudelaire, who in 1856 complained that the great heresy of his time was ‘the suppression of the concept of original sin’, a damning question flickers throughout: how could they let this happen? 

It’s easy for us to judge the Picassos, but I wonder how we’d react if the Gestapo came knocking on our doors, or if we heard those nocturnal pleas for help? The novel taps into that idea of neighbourhood, turning the Woolfian mirror back on us. Between these monstrous acts, we all have a duty and a responsibility. Keeping the monsters away – both in wider society and closer to home – has never been more pertinent.  

Darkness in the City of Light is an important book which gives a voice to the voiceless, yes, but it also shows how quickly things can go awry. Seren deserves praise for its book design and for recognising the importance of these experimental, multi-form novels which challenge conventional boundaries. I hope that many more poets will follow Curtis’s example.

Review by Glamorgan Star

Monday, December 20, 2021

Tony Curtis who is an emeritus Professor of Poetry at the University of South Wales has written his first novel at the age of 75.

Prof Curtis, who lived in Barry for many years and now lives in the Vale, has published numerous books of poetry, together with studies of other authors and academic works, and enjoyed the experience of writing his novel so much that he is already busy on another.

The novel titles Darkness in the City of Light is set in occupied Paris during World War Two, and in the period after liberation. The story has been in his head for about 25 years.

He said: “It started life being ‘workshopped’ at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff as a play. That didn’t work out but the subject stuck and I continued to research it.”

While the book is a novel, the important elements of the story are based on fact – and around that spine Prof Curtis introduces the real characters. It’s up to the reader to decide if what they say is a genuine quote or one that “ought to be true”.

So, at various time we encounter Pablo Picasso, Earnest Hemingway, Coco Chanel and many others. The contract between the privileged lifestyle of the famous and the poverty and fear endured by ‘ordinary’ people is ever present.

Who could you trust? In occupied Paris that was a question that could determine whether you survived or not.

However, the villain of the piece (apart from the Nazis) is Marcel Petiot. This is now whodunnit. We learn about his early in the book and, as one of the most prolific serial killers ever, it is a surprise that he is not better know.

A high functioning serial killer in fact. He was a doctor who mixed easily in society – until his crimes were discovered. At the same time, he portrayed himself as a member of the Resistance – and people who came to him trying to flee the country were murdered and robbed.

That a monster could operate for so long depended, of course, on the chaos of life in an occupied major city. Tony Curtis takes the reader through that world, using research and his own imagination, to bring it to life.

Paris may have escaped the destruction that rained down on other major European cities during World War Two, but the occupation left a different type of damage.

This book will surprise and inform the reader as it shines a light on the dark recesses of the human mind.


Review by David Llewellyn, Nation Cymru

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Darkness in the City of Light is a genre-defying new novel by Tony Curtis.

The final days of the Third Reich have proven to be a rich seam of inspiration for writers and filmmakers in the decades since Hitler and his cohort exited the stage in a suicidal blaze of ignominy. Director G.W. Pabst, who had made two feature films under the regime, was the first to give us an onscreen “Fuhrer” in his 1955 film The Last Ten Days. It’s a story that’s been retold in versions featuring Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, and – perhaps most successfully – Bruno Ganz as the murderous dictator.

A list of fictional and imaginative depictions of Nazism’s twilight might include Pasolini’s final and most controversial film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in which de Sade’s tale of depravity is transposed to the fascist puppet state in Northern Italy. In Gunter Grasse’s epic novel The Tin Drum the diminutive Oskar bears witness to the rise and inevitable fall of German fascism, while Hans Hellmut Kirst’s novel The Night of the Generals and its 1967 adaptation starring Peter O’Toole, has three generals suspected of murder meet in Paris in the summer of ’44, as the “Tausendjähriges Reich” loses its grip on its westernmost province.

It was in this real-life diabolical milieu that the crimes of Marcel Petiot came to light. Posing as the saviour of those who wished to escape Nazi-occupied Paris – the Jews, Resistance fighters and criminals facing internment and much worse – he was in fact a serial killer, responsible for perhaps as many as 60 murders, poisoning those who sought his assistance and keeping their money and belongings for himself.

When some of the victims and their clothing and jewellery were found at a house belonging to him, Petiot’s defence was that he had been working with the Resistance, and that the bodies were those of traitors and collaborators. It was one he maintained right up until the end, but it convinced neither judge nor jury, and he was executed in May 1946.

Petiot, who went by various aliases, including Dr Eugene and Henri Valeri, is the focal point of Darkness in the City of Light, a genre-defying new novel by the poet Tony Curtis. This isn’t a simple retelling of the Petiot story, one that might sit comfortably on the True Crime or Holocaust-themed shelves of your local discount bookshop.

In breaking both moulds Curtis combines documentary elements with imaginary monologues, in prose and verse, and a cast of real-life characters, from famous names such as Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir and Lee Miller to the victims of Dr Petiot, who speak to the condemned man from beyond the grave during his final days and hours.

Deceit and disinformation

It was these verses I found most powerful, moments when the book touches most profoundly on the scale of the tragedy wrought by both Petiot and the genocidal regime that sent so many men, women and children to the internment camp at Drancy and finally the death camps of the east.

The doctor committed his crimes in an age of deceit and disinformation, surrounded by a cavalcade of crooks, murderers and thieves, both among the occupying forces and the local criminal underclass, and Curtis masterfully smudges the already blurred lines between fiction and fact.

A lesser book might have made an antihero of Petiot, but by giving voice to the witnesses and those who disappeared into the charnel house of 21 Rue le Sueur, Darkness in the City of Light often feels like a final act of restorative justice, long after Madame Guillotine meted out the judge’s sentence at Paris’s Prison de la Sante.

It is also a vivid, kaleidoscopic portrait of Paris before, during and immediately after its liberation. We encounter Nazis in the full grip of hubris, the gallows humour of cabaret performers in the city’s seedier nightclubs, and witnesses to Ernest Hemingway and Fred Astaire at the Ritz.

If Petiot isn’t our main character, then Paris certainly is, and Curtis paints a picture of it, much like the city itself, in various shades of grey, a character it maintained decades after its Nazi occupiers became the stuff of history books and movies. As the horrific events of November 2015 and the Notre-Dame fire of 2019 remind us, there is still much darkness in the City of Light.

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