Darkness in the City of Light

Tony Curtis
Publication Date: 
Monday, November 1, 2021
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“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 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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