Nicolas de la Reynie has the distinction of being Paris’s first police chief, a position he stepped into during the reign of King Louis XIV. Paris was a nasty cesspool full of criminals at the time, and de la Reynie turned things around by putting lamps up everywhere (which is how Paris came to be known as “the City of Light”).
But not everything in Paris could be cured with a well-placed lamp. During de la Reynie’s tenure, people in Paris were getting poisoned left and right…and the poisoning was thought to go all the way up to Versailles.
See, even though the Sun King was married, he had mistresses. Lots and lots of mistresses. One mistress in particular, Madame de Montespan, got right peeved when Louis XIV ditched her for another, more moral woman, and it was thought that Madame de Montespan might have turned to poison to settle the score.
The problem was that a lot of the rumors about the poisonings amongst the nobility were just that: rumors. De la Reynie spent years trying to track down what was truth and what was fiction when it came to the poisonings in Paris. During his quest, he arrested more than 400 Parisians and executed at least 30 of them. He eventually got to the woman he thought was at the root of the poison trade in Paris — Catherine Voison — and in questioning her and her accomplices he heard tales of murder, witchcraft, child trafficking, abortion, and more murder.
I thought this book did a great job of showing what life was like in Paris during the reign of King Louis XIV. The pages are full of details that capture the imagination…for example, people would put bars in the walls by their front doors to wipe the mud of their feet before going into a building, because there were no sidewalks.
Be warned, however: there are lots of French names in this book, some of them almost interchangeable, and the author doesn’t always remind you of who a person is — she just throws a name at you. Additionally, there are some fairly egregious typos in this book, which annoyed the heck out of me because that’s the kind of person I am.