CITY OF LIGHT, CITY OF POISON: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris, by Holly Tucker. W.W. Norton & Co., 310 pp., $26.95.
From 1679 to 1682, there transpired in the Paris of Louis XIV a series of sudden deaths that touched the public imagination in a deep and lasting way. Poisoners were at work — many of them, it seemed — and their victims included magistrates, aged and rich husbands, and, possibly, members of the king’s court at Versailles. The king was still consolidating his power at Versailles, and jealous nobles were suspected of threatening members of his entourage, and the monarch himself. The matter is known to the French as “l’affaire des poisons,” the affair of the poisons, one of those staples of court intrigue when the Sun King ruled supreme that have led to endless speculation with no definitive resolution.
Holly Tucker’s “City of Light, City of Poison” is an intriguing amalgam of historical evocation and crime narrative that places the emphasis on the investigating official, Nicolas de la Reynie, first chief of the Paris police force. Tucker tells the story as if it were a classic whodunit, bringing alive an extremely complicated and baffling series of events using La Reynie’s notes and voluminous court transcripts. The temptation to embroider and elaborate, to suggest motives and deduce states of mind, is very great. It sometimes feels as if the narrative is about to shift into fiction, but the facts of the court records keep reining things in.
The poisoners were mostly women of modest means, consulted for beauty aids, aphrodisiacs, fortune telling and clandestine abortions. And when a client was overcome by a jealous fury, or the fear of being left without means, the option of poison was apparently not far to find. So, too, one’s position at court could be improved by the sudden elimination of a rival.
We learn that the French call arsenic “la poudre de succession,” “the inheritance powder.” The only open question is whether members of the aristocracy close to the king were implicated, something that can never be determined since Louis XIV himself had all the relevant documents burned before his death. Tucker does a masterful job of keeping all the intrigues coherent, but in the end there are just too many players, and it’s hard to keep track of who’s poisoning who, though the motives are familiar enough: money, power, position, passion, jealousy.
The parts of “City of Light, City of Poison” that provide historical background paint a picture that is compelling and shocking in its depiction of royal privilege, and the ever-present fear of a plot against the sovereign. The ostensible hero of the story, La Reynie, had almost unrestricted power to arrest, torture and confiscate. Armed with a secret letter bearing the king’s seal, he could make people disappear at will. Never mind habeas corpus; this was an early version of extreme rendition. Tucker’s descriptions of the torture methods of the day are at once precise and terrifying, as in one of the favored ways to make a suspect confess:
“The third and preferred form — brodequins, or torture boots — consisted of enclosing each leg in a wood or metal casing wrapped tightly with rope. The torturer then hammered wood shims into each corner of the casing . . . The muscles often burst and bones shattered.”
The violence of the monarch knew no bounds when his person was threatened. This is a France still partly medieval in its underpinnings, even in Paris, with women accused of sorcery, witchcraft, abortions and . . . poisoning. Merciless punishment was the rule: decapitation, dismemberment, burning alive. Tucker conjures that world convincingly — and makes us grateful to be living beyond its reach.