Holly Tucker has accomplished a feat of research in creating City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris. More than that, Tucker has made the detailed historical events and personages into an incredibly readable story. It’s extraordinary!
Much as I love nonfiction, I often find books about history to be dry and boring. However, City of Light, City of Poison was like vintage wine that I couldn’t stop drinking until the whole case was gone. Centered on a part of Louis XIV’s seventeenth century reign, the story focuses on the women in his life and some nefarious characters who may or may not have been contributing to their rivalries and controversy. I loved learning about the King’s mistresses and not-so-courtly shenanigans of their times.
Over the years, I’ve read plenty about witches and witchcraft in England and Colonial America. Learning about its part in French and Parisian history was fascinating and quite grisly. The process of hunting down, questioning, torturing, sentencing, and often executing the alleged criminals had plenty of connection to modern police procedure. Except the part where the final decisions pretty much all depended on the whim of the King.
Tucker’s writing style just worked for me. It brought everything to life. She says, “Studying these volumes felt like being on an exhilarating treasure hunt, exploring pages with astrological drawings, poison recipes, instructions for magic spells, appeals from desperate clients to the witches and poisoners, the shaky signatures of frightened prisoners, and the doodles of bored scribes.” I’d love to see those centuries-old doodles!
If I could change one thing in City of Light, City of Poison, it would be to give the historical personages more diverse names. Sometimes I had to reference the index to keep them all straight. Of course, that’s really an issue with this reader and not the author.
I’m absolutely planning to hunt down copies of Tucker’s previous books, tout de suite!