In the 1660s, King Louis XIV was so embarrassed by the filth and crime of Paris that he retreated to his country estate of Versailles permanently. One of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, Paris in the 17th century was also home to slums and immense poverty. The Sun King hired Nicolas de La Reynie to clean up the city. Once installed in his new post as lieutenant general of police, La Reynie first installed street lightning and organized neighborhood watch organizations. Soon, however, he found that he must tackle a much more complicated case – the Affair of the Poisons.
In her new book, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris, historian Holly Tucker explores this fascinating period of French history. Using his surviving extensive handwritten notes, Tucker is able to reconstruct the minutiae of La Reynie’s investigation into the poisoning (and attempted poisoning) of several prominent French leaders in the 1660s.
Early in his investigation, La Reynie traces the poisonings to the impoverished Paris neighborhood of Montorgeuil. There, a group of midwives, magicians, and crooked priests had for some time contracted with members of the aristocracy to procure everything from face whitening powder and love potions to abortions and deadly poison. La Reynie soon discovers that the affair is even more extensive than he imagined, as several of the king’s mistresses (all bitter rivals) become embroiled in the scandal.
As his investigation expands to include hundreds of suspects, La Reynie petitions the king to create a special tribunal to question and sentence those accused. In all, several hundred men and women were arrested, tortured, and executed for their involvement in the Affair of the Poisons.
Tucker’s book reads like a fast-paced criminal investigation – more like an episode of Law and Order than a dusty history of 17th century France. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in French history or in the history of law enforcement and criminal justice.
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017