Book review: City of Light, City of Poison, by Holly Tucker
In the late 1600s during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, a network of witches, fortune tellers, apothecaries, priests, charlatans and magic and medicine people operated in the shadows of Paris. They provided desperate customers with the medicinal powders and potions they wanted to solve their problems, which were often romantic in nature, or involving inheritances.
The king appointed Nicolas de la Reynie, the city’s first chief of police, to investigate the sources following the deaths of two magistrates. It was found that the intricate web of passion and poison touched all strata of the city, and as the threads of secrecy unraveled, they revealed a heavy presence throughout the king’s own court.
The Sun King was infamous for his extramarital affairs, and this created a frenzy of jealousy, jockeying for place, and control amongst the women he favored. They acted passionately, plotting against anyone who challenged them, including their own husbands. In other classes of society, women needed unwanted pregnancies disposed of, even though the legal price of performing such an operation was death. Or maybe relatives stood in the way of hefty inheritances, and the best way to ensure one’s fortune was to speed up their deaths.
There was a powder or liquid for anything, and plenty of money to be made in the process. Midwives and priests collaborated with self-styled witches, charlatans employed sleight of hand to exploit their desperately trusting clients. These are the kind of tales that are so ubiquitous in popular culture that we can almost predict what’s coming, but to read the details and descriptions was fascinating. Think of where eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat came from – it’s all here.
Unlike many history books about the period, although thoroughly researched, this one isn’t remotely dry or academic in tone. It’s crafted around a smooth, readable narrative and draws on vibrant accounts like courtroom transcripts to give a livelier voice to the figures involved in the drama. It reads like true crime of the modern era, while providing a glimpse into the lives, loves, and losses, intentioned or otherwise, of the legendary age of France under the Sun King.
It can be a little difficult to keep track of names, especially of those in the royal orbit, since the king would often confer a special title in exchange for a favor done for him, or having his children, or taking care of his illegitimate children – services like that. So there end up being a plethora of names, titles, and figures involved in general. In the case of the charlatans, they often go by multiple names or aliases.
Holly Tucker, a professor of French and biomedical ethics, is certainly the right person with the perfect background to explore this subject and story. She writes in the epilogue about the difficulties she encountered just in trying to research and write the book. The king ordered the documents related to the cases destroyed, and it was thanks to the meticulously copied notes of la Reynie, Paris’s first police chief, that the dark tales, trials and tortures weren’t lost entirely to history.
Paris will always captivate hearts and imaginations the world over. It has an alluring romantic aura that never seems to dull or fade. It seems only natural that we’d be curious about the darker side of the beloved City of Light. Just as the Parisian Catacombs draw flocks of tourists day after day to explore the city’s underground while trying to call up an image of it during a darker, dirtier, mysterious time; City of Light, City of Poison pulls back the curtain of time and almost-forgotten stories to show a different side of Paris, when morals and ethics were taken to two shocking extremes: the strict and inflexible accepted societal morals, and the punishments for infractions so extreme as to be barbaric.
Difficult to read but an integral part of the history of police procedure was the torture that was a regular part of questioning, often taking place shortly before a prisoner’s execution.
But even these dark corners of history help illuminate the present. Especially in this case, when records were ordered destroyed and came very close to not surviving their immediate time, it’s better that we remember what the law and order of a modern, civilized society once entailed. And how far we’ve come from it.
City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris
by Holly Tucker
published March 21, 2017 by W.W. Norton and Company
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.