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City of Light, City of Poison: Holly Tucker Reveals the Darkest Secrets from the Court of Louis XIV

SultanaBun By SultanaBun Published on April 12, 2017
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Holly Tucker (via Twitter)

Holly Tucker’s City of Light, City of Poison is a riveting tale of power, passion and toxic lovers set in seventeenth century Paris. Tucker’s account of what became known as The Affair of the Poisons may read like a novel but is built from her meticulous study of historical documents and includes scintillating excerpts from court documents, memoirs, letters and records of interrogation.

‘Truth be told,’ says Tucker in her introduction,’ I am comforted by the fact that I do not have sufficient imagination to conjure up a story as grim and troubling as this non-fiction account of lost souls and cruel deeds.’

Tucker’s story feels every bit as rich and her characters as full of life as she claims to have found the historical documents she studied.

‘Late seventeenth century Paris assaulted the senses and rattled the nerves.’

Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a visionary. He built palaces and gardens of previously unimagined grandeur and he was determined that his vision would not be spoiled by the filth and lawlessness of his capital city. What was required, advised Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis’s minister of finance, was a centralised police force with one man taking charge and responsibility. On March 15, 1667, Louis created the position of Lieutenant General of Police. All that remained was to find the right man for the job.

‘The challenge lay in finding someone who was not so ingrained in the system as to be incapable of the creativity and determination required to assert control over an unruly city. Such a man, Colbert explained to the king, would have to be exceptional if not almost superhuman.’

Nicolas de La Reynie, a lawyer from Limoges, was an original thinker and diligent worker. At the age of just twenty-one, he was appointed head of the Bordeaux courts. His loyalty to the child king through the riots of 1648 was noted and led to a rapid acceleration through the ranks of the French legal system. La Reynie, decided Colbert, was the right man for the job.

As Paris’s first Lieutenant General of Police, La Reynie was given unprecedented authority. He wielded it to shed light, literally and figuratively, on every dark corner of Parisian life. He installed drinking water fountains, co-ordinated the first public lighting system and organised rubbish collections and street cleaners.

Law and order was La Reynie’s prime objective. He gathered information from a web of informants, civil servants and spies and penned daily reports to the king. It was he who gave Paris her name as the City of Light.

‘La Reynie cleaned the streets; he conquered the night.

Meanwhile, Louis XIV was diligently working his way through an impressive line up of mistresses. His willing conquests included Louise de Vallière who was chief lady-in-waiting to his wife; his brother’s wife, Henrietta Anne; Athénais de Montespan (The Torrent) who was lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Anne; and Claude de Vin des Oeillets who was an attendant to Montespan. Louis bedded all these and doubtless many more, while dutifully finishing his evenings in the bed of his wife and queen, Marie-Thérèse.

To be fair, it seems from this account that Louis XIV was genuinely affectionate to his mistresses in their turn and allowed them each generous pensions when his roving heart moved on. Unfortunately, as Tucker exposes, the women were less kind and well-intentioned toward each other. Some resorted to desperate, and despicable, measures to hold on to their positions at court and in Louis’ heart. And so, the lovers of Louis XIV cross paths with La Reynie.

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Louis XIV did his regal utmost to bury this story. The book opens with the elderly king consigning page after page of La Reynie's reports to the fire.

‘When Louis XIV burned the records of the Affair of the Poisons on that hot summer day in 1709, he hoped to keep one of the greatest scandals in French history from posterity.’

As progressive investigations, interrogations and torture scenes reveal layer after layer of this intricate plot, the greatest question at the back of this reader's head was, 'but how does she know all this?' Tucker plays that card close to her chest right up to an intriguing epilogue.

Louis didn’t count on the meticulous note-making and record-keeping of his police chief nor on the archive-digging and story-telling ability of Holly Tucker. 

'The very fact that I was able to write this book is testament to the king's miscalculation.'

City of Light, City of Poison is no ordinary true crime story. Tucker takes us deep under cover into the dark morass of Parisian Criminal underworld.  The author highlights the dichotomy of seventeenth century France by alternating chapters between the dazzling spectacle of Louis XIV's Versailles and the filthy tenements of the Montorgeuil quarter. The heady perfume and the ordure of each, respectively, is brought vividly, and repulsively, to life.

Tucker examined several thousand extant manuscripts of judicial records, astrological charts, magic spells and poison recipes but she has avoided any temptation to weigh down her writing with facts and figures. Quotations, when they are included, are enlightening and, particularly in the case of the court wit and chronicler Madame de Sevigne, spiked with dark humour.

‘We do not speak at all of poison. The word is banned at Versailles and all of France.’

Tucker's vast body of research has been folded seamlessly into a book which is both engrossing and appalling. What unfolds is a tale of black masses, sacrificial slaughter and sacrileges beyond imagining. 

This is your chance to read the story Louis XIV, the Sun King, wished would never see the light of day.

Purchase City of Light, City of Poison here from May 16th, 2017.

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More