Book review: 'City of Light, City of Poison'

”City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic and the First Police Chief of Paris” by Holly Tucker. New York: W.W. Norton, 2017. 336 pages, $26.95 (hardcover).

“City of Light” tells the story of the “Affair of the Poisons,” a murder scandal that embroiled France in the late 17th century. A wave of poisonings involving King Louis XIV’s inner circle of nobles led to the implication of hundreds of people and resulted in dozens of executions in the 1670s and 1680s.

Tucker’s book is a historical account based on archival research. It offers the reader several compelling portraits. “City of Light” unveils in pithy detail the seedy, violent Paris underworld of the 17th century. Vicious criminals rule dark, stinking streets lined with human and animal filth. Pickpockets, con artists and murderers act with near impunity. Crime is so bad that even law enforcement officials cannot protect themselves. The book begins with the tale of the murder of Jacques Tardieu, Paris’ aging police chief, who is killed by two thieves who break into his house and slit his throat during the robbery.

Tucker also paints a titillating portrait of the court life of Louis XIV, who was king of France from 1643 to 1715. Louis’ uninhibited libido drives his court’s political and sexual affairs forward. As mistresses fall in and out of the King’s favor and bed, deadly rivalries erupt. A series of strange deaths attributed to poisoning, some of which killed Louis’ acknowledged mistresses, put the king’s inner circle on edge for years.

The reader also learns of the webs of crime, magic and witchcraft that tied the world of Louis XIV’s court to the Paris underworld during the “Affair of the Poisons.” Catherine Voisin is an enterprising potion-maker and backroom abortion provider in the seedy Montorgeuil neighborhood. She mixes concoctions using rendered poison toads, arsenic, stillborn fetuses and other dark materials believed to enhance passion and fertility or kill enemies, depending on the blend. Voisin sells her potions to desperate women, noble and poor alike, and is implicated in 1679 for supplying poisons to the Affair’s main villains.

Standing at the crossroads of Louis’ court, the Paris underworld, and the “Affair of the Poisons” is the book’s protagonist, Nicholas de La Reynie. In 1667, Louis XIV appointed La Reynie to head Paris’ police department and charged him with cleaning up Paris’ crime-ridden, dirty streets. The dogged lieutenant general rounded up many of Paris’ most notorious criminals and deployed the entire population to clean up the street filth. La Reynie brought light to Paris streets, literally, by stringing up thousands of lanterns to illuminate the city at night. Tucker claims La Reynie’s initiative accounts for Paris’ enduring moniker, the City of Light.

La Reynie is the chief investigator in the “Affair of the Poisons.” La Reynie’s activities are hampered by the requirement – imposed by the king himself – that he catch criminals but avoid making any court scandals public. As the lieutenant general’s investigation creeps closer and closer to Louis XIV’s favorite courtesans, the king and his trusted advisers like Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the most powerful government minister of the time, curtail the inquiry to avoid trouble at Versailles. Clearly, there are two standards of justice at work, and the king’s wishes trump any law on the books, even murder.

Readers who enjoy murder mysteries, history and true-crime stories will love “City of Light.” Tucker is a talented writer, and her book tells a gripping story at a brisk pace. The author has performed extensive research in French archives to uncover very useful documentation, including La Reynie’s personal letters and private investigation notes. Tucker remains refreshingly faithful to the historical record as she weaves an intriguing tale.

– Reviewed by Eric Reed, Western Kentucky University History Department.

– Editor’s note: Holly Tucker will speak in WKU Libraries’ Far Away Places series at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble Booksellers on Campbell Lane.

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