You’d probably think that assassins, poisoners, fake priests, black magic, seances with the devil, and child sacrifice would be elements of a fantasy novel but City of Light, City of Poison is legitimate history. This book deals with the Poison Affair and Nicolas de la Reynie, the first police commissioner of Paris under Louis XIV. The Poison affair was a tangled web of scandals involving many individuals throughout Paris as a whole network of criminals were able to concoct and sell poisons that were successfully used to murder many throughout France. This book deal with Reynie’s unraveling of this network and its dissolution with several dozen executions (many of them women) eventually being carried out.
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I’ll admit that some portions of the book were a little dry, though that may have been due to my lack of prior knowledge of the time-period. Also, because all the individuals were obviously French I sometimes lost track of who was who, though that as well is mostly my fault. The only real complaint that I have with the narrative itself is that I wish more time was dedicated to Reynie’s other work as the police commissioner of Paris and the other reforms that he instated during his tenure. There is an early chapter dedicated to this topic but it is quite brief in comparison to all of the material that is covered with the Poison Affair itself. He just seemed like a really cool historical figure and sometimes the investigation really took over leaving Reynie more on the sidelines.
Being fairly unfamiliar with time period it was interesting to look the underground of Paris in the early modern period. There was some pretty sketchy stuff going on with all of the things mentioned at the beginning of the review going on (plus more). One interesting tidbit from the book that stuck with me regarding how insane this whole scandal became was when two suspects were being questioned about a child sacrifice. They began arguing with each other not about if the infant was killed or not, but about who delivered the killing blow by slitting the throat. The author, Holly Tucker, did a really good job at untangling the mess of interconnected criminals from the primary source material and she has an interesting chapter on how most of the original documents survived the ravages of time. These sources included torture interrogation transcriptions and some original field notes. (I forgot to mention earlier the creative “questioning” methods that were around in Paris. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of the question extraordinaire.)
Overall, I found City of Light, City of Poison to be an entertaining and informative book of history which is always a good combination of qualities in a nonfiction work. There were a couple of dryer parts, but these were few and far between the accounts of aristocratic intrigue, black magic, and antidote making. This is an excellent piece of historical writing for those interested in Paris, the reign of Louis XIV, or in the early modern period.
4.5 out of 5 stars.