Never mind Nordic noir…French drama’s where it’s at these days. So if you adore the scheming in dark corners in Versailles, or being creeped out watching le petit Victor by the light of a 40-watt bulb in The Returned, hold on to your hat and hope that some bright spark dramatises City of Light, City of Poison. And let’s face it – it’s not often that you can say that about an academic book.
Well, it’s a cop drama of sorts, intermingled with a historian’s tenacious pursuit of the evidence. It’s the late 1600s and Paris is a hotbed of crime. The murder of two magistrates spurs Louis XIV to appoint Nicolas de la Reynie as Lieutenant-General of Paris – the city’s first police chief – in 1667. And there’s a sight more than cutpurses, feuding tradesmen and people emptying their chamberpots out of windows for him to deal with – we get witches, courtesans, poisoners and dodgy priests along the way. And in the opening chapter, why is Louis burning mysterious paperwork?
The Affair of the Poisons was one of the greatest social and political scandals in early French history, with poisonings, witchcraft, illegal abortions and gambling at its heart. And, like all the best yarns, it involves corruption in the highest places. Alongside the murky goings-on, Holly Tucker provides a detailed either-side-of-the-bedsheets portrait of Louis XIV and his entourage. She speculates at the end of the book as to why the king turned a blind eye to the dark arts flourishing among his mistresses. Maybe he just didn’t want to know.
If you’ve got an over-fertile imagination like mine, Tucker’s way with a lavish description will have you planning your all-star adaptation of the book. This is a sprawling epic, with the filthy, teeming city playing a star role. Apparently the young Louis XIV lost his virginity to a 40-year-old servant while he was getting out of the bath. I do hope that there will be money in the budget for the procession of 30,000 horses as Louis travelled in a gold-encrusted coach through the Low Countries to claim victory over the Spanish.
Amid the assiduous world-building, there’s some truly dogged historical research to admire. Perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of the book is the epilogue, where Tucker describes her research journey. She has benefited from La Reynie’s compulsive note-taking, as well as combing through court transcripts. And she promises: “I have attributed no words, thoughts, motivations, or actions for which there is not documentation.” A picture of La Reynie’s handwriting shows us that Tucker was clearly faced with no easy task.
The best books of this type – of which City of Light, City of Poison is undoubtedly one – combine the narrative energy of crime fiction with the faintly prurient nature of true crime and the academic persistence of the specialist historian. It’s the 17th-century version of the television series Spiral, with plenty of walks on the wild side in a chiaroscuro city, sexual shenanigans at the highest level and a picaresque cast ranging from courtesans to kings. Now to cast the production…I nominate the chap who played Justice Roban in Spiral to star as La Reynie – he can do wily for France.
City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic and the First Police Chief of Paris
By Holly Tucker
W. W. Norton, 336pp, £21.99
Published 16 May 2017