more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

an open letter to the producers of True Detective

I have an idea for your second season.

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This week, I started reading David King’s Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris.  It’s about Marcel Petiot, a doctor who likely killed 60 or more people, mostly during the Occupation.  He managed to infiltrate a shady network of underground types, purporting to assist people who needed to get out of Paris: Jews, criminals, and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis.  Petiot positioned himself as the most important link in the chain – the one who could give these desperate people the false papers they needed in order to get out of France, into Spain, on a boat across the Atlantic, and then to Buenos Aires.  He would collect 25,000 francs from each would-be refugee, tell them to come to his townhouse at 21 rue Le Sueur with one or two bags at most (and no identifying documents), and then – under the guise of inoculating them for their trip to the New World – inject them with morphine or peyote, string them up in a soundproof room, and gas them.  After they died, he dismembered the corpse, removed their fingerprints and organs, and either burnt or dumped in quicklime the hacked-up body.

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Because it was the Occupation, and because the mood in Paris was so despondent anyway, Petiot was able to carry on his murder spree with near impunity.  The Gestapo had a file on him, and arrested him for eight months, but they let him out – perhaps because they realized he wasn’t doing the work of the Resistance, but actually killing Jews for them.  Families of disappeared victims would sometimes hope that they had really made it to South America – especially because Petiot would, de temps en temps, send them postcards technically written by the victims, but dictated by Petiot.  Family members often wondered at these missives, since they used the wrong pet names, and were signed with their loved ones’ full legal names – but they clung to hope until, one day, they had to identify their missing person’s luggage, found with a pile of other missing persons’ luggage, in a storage space where Petiot kept his victims’ personal effects (that is, other than the things he pilfered immediately and doled out to his wife, son, brother, friends, etc.).

Marcel Petiot speaking at his murder trial-273766

So.  Let’s reiterate the aspects of this case that more than warrant an in-depth screen adaptation – and due to the scope of the case, a television screen adaptation would be best:

1. Backdrop: the Occupation, a singularly horrible chapter in French history.  The ways in which the Nazis exerted their stranglehold on France  are staggering in their depth and breadth.
2. The crimes themselves: dozens of deviously planned murders, precisely and opportunistically crafted to take advantage of desperate people during a uniquely desperate situation.
3. The crimes’ setting: Petiot’s townhouse in rue Le Sueur, which he renovated for the purpose of carrying out his murders.  In the back, there was a three-sided room with hooks on one wall, a door (that opened only from the outside) on another, and a viewer in the third – from which Petiot watched his victims’ deaths.  There was also a lime pit, a couple of carving tables, and a hodgepodge of stolen furniture, jewelry, clothes, etc., from his victims.
4. The public’s reaction to the case: Parisians found the gruesome story of Petiot’s murders an almost welcome distraction from the daily drudgery and pain of the Occupation.  There was also the tension between the German-controlled “official” media, and the underground Resistance media – neither of which was especially close to the truth of the case at any time before Petiot’s capture in late 1944.
5. The investigation: veteran policeman Commissaire Massu had to sift through almost unfathomable amounts of incomplete evidence – bodies, suitcases, bits of hearsay – while both his superiors and their German overlords exerted unimaginable pressure on his skull to hurry and hush it all up.  In fact, after the Liberation, Massu was (as many other French people in some sort of position of power) accused of Collaboration and removed from the case before he could catch Petiot.  His name was eventually cleared, but it’s one more frustrating tragedy of the story.

I don’t doubt that the producers of True Detective have a plan for their second season, and I’m sure it’s great.  Maybe they’ll stick to Southern Gothic; maybe they’ll go elsewhere in the U.S.  There is plenty of darkness in Americana, and it’s not as if we don’t have our share of serial killers and other such psychopaths for inspiration.  However, I humbly submit this suggestion: the case of Marcel Petiot would make for great television.  Get Jean Dujardin to play Petiot, and someone older and sufficiently hardboiled – other than Depardieu – to play Massu (because really, Gérard, your time in the sun has come and gone), and you’ve got yourself at least 8 episodes of creepy, historic suspense.

P.S. on a personal note, there is something about King’s description of the Liberation that I find incredibly moving, and with which I identify perhaps more closely than a normal person should identify with a historical event:

On August 24 [1944], the fourteen-ton bell of Notre Dame rang for the first time in four long years. Other churches followed suit. Camus, working on the Resistance paper Combat, wrote that day, “The greatness of man lies in the decision to be stronger than his condition.”

Taken prisoner the following day, Von Choltitz signed the surrender document in a billiard room of the prefecture. …At ten o’clock, the Nazi swastika was lowered from the Eiffel Tower and replaced by a huge tricolor. Raymond Sarniguet, the fireman who had been forced to take down the French flag on June 13, 1940, climbed the 1,671 steps to the top, beating competitors, to raise it once again over the city.

That evening, crowds milled in front of the Hôtel de Ville in expectation of General de Gaulle’s speech. Shots were still being fired sporadically from windows and rooftops around the city. De Gaulle stepped onto the balcony and proceeded not to proclaim the republic, because, as he put it, it had never ceased to exist. France was not beginning, but continuing. “Paris,” he shouted, “Paris abused, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated” — liberated, he added, “by itself, its people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, that is to say of the France which fights, that is to say of the real France, of eternal France.” There was no mention of the Allies.

The following morning, Saturday, August 26, 1944, the Feast of Saint-Louis, patron saint of France, de Gaulle paraded down the Champs-Élysées and Paris erupted into a monumental victory celebration — and one of the most unforgettable days in its history. Four bitter dark years ended in the uncorking of champagne bottles, the waving of tricolors, and singing of “La Marseillaise.” “I was drunk with emotion, drowning in happiness,” the future historian Gilles Perrault recalled. Crowds cheered madly. Journalist Ernie Pyle, swept up in the excitement, described the scene as “the loveliest, brightest story of our time.” After 1,553 nights of Occupation, Paris was once again the City of Light.

Here’s hoping.

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2 comments on “an open letter to the producers of True Detective

  1. Karen
    April 8, 2014

    Considering this book was about a serial killer, and set during one of my favorite times in history to read about, I thought I would enjoy it much more than I did. It *is* a fascinating, amazing tale. I’d love to see Dujardin as Petiot! (Well, I’d love to see Dujardin as just about anything, probably.)

  2. Pingback: Stupid answers to stupid questions | more stars than in the heavens

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