‘Day and night they kill here, we have arrived at the dregs of all centuries.’ Guy Patin a doctor at the Paris Faculty of Medicine in the late 17th Century
City of Light, City of Poison is by Holly Light a Vanderbilt professor of French History who has an enduring fascination with True Crime and the rise of forensics. She previously authored Blood Work; A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, which also made the Best Book lists of Times Literary Supplement and Seattle Times. While Blood Work was primarily concerned with principles of medical ethics in the earliest days of Enlightenment, City of Light is directed squarely at the stubborn hold superstition still held in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, aka The Sun King.
Nicolas de Reynie, was the first police chief of Paris appointed by Louis himself to clean up the town both figuratively and literally. For in those days Paris was not a romantic center of culture and refinement, but rather a squalid, filthy metropolis with streets knee deep in mud and refuse. Moreover, it was ridden by crime and deadly street brawls routinely broke out among valets armed with swords in broad daylight and the public thoroughfares. Reynie’s efforts to reform the city were extensive; he instituted garbage collection, street cleaning and was even responsible for the hanging of public lanterns that made Paris a ‘City of Light’ He was just as dedicated (and frequently ruthless) to rooting out Paris’s crime problem as well and would eventually uncover a web of self-proclaimed sorcerers and poisoners whose web of intrigue extended to the royal court.
Tucker gives us an exhaustively researched yet thoroughly engrossing narrative. While it’s not always possible to differentiate what accounts were true and what was fantasy the verifiable facts are in and of themselves more bizarre, macabre, lurid, and convoluted than Game of Thrones. Palm reader, fortune-teller, and serial poisoner Madame Voisin is at the heart of it all along with a confederacy of swindlers, killers, and even priests who sidelined in the Black Arts. As their reputations grew they would attract more and more illustrious clients from the nobility itself….even perhaps Louis’s official mistresses. Small wonder that Reynie’s investigation would soon become a national scandal that the Sun King would feel the need to involve himself in. Louis; bold, flamboyant, sensual, profligate, generous, and cruel all at once is as central a figure to the story as is the dutiful, loyal, yet at times viciously Puritanical Reynie. Naturally they’re frustrating and complicated people; they’re real! It all makes for a truly fascinating read you cannot put down.
City of Light, City of Poison