The title is a bit of a mouthful, but there’s no denying it’s catchy. The story is no less scintillating than the title. It chronicles the shockingly TRUE story of 17th century Paris under the reign of King Louis XIV, and the exhaustive efforts of police chief Nicolas la Reynie to clean up Paris, and its inhabitants.
Reading this book, I discovered I know very little French history prior to the Revolution. Growing up, I was taught far more about English history from that era. I had no idea that 17th century France was such a hotbed of adultery, black magic, and homicide.
This book captures the era with a surprising amount of detail. Holly Tucker obviously conducted extensive research. As proof, around half a dozen pages of notes and bibliography linger in the end pages. Far from reading like a history book, however, this work of nonfiction could easily find a home in the pages of crime pulp fiction.
Did you know Louis XIV enjoyed the company of an assemblage of mistresses throughout his life? I vaguely remembered this tidbit, but was surprised to find how openly he courted many of them. Some of his mistresses lived with him, in quarters just far enough from the queen as to feign ignorance of their existence. So, his wife knew about the affairs, and ignored them; in fact, didn’t seem at all bothered by them. He even sired illegitimate children whom he would hide, but later choose to legitimize. His reign was scandalous, but apparently only casually so. It seems his affairs were treated with thinly, thinly veiled secrecy.
Louis’ indiscretions are nothing to the rest of the nobility at the time, though. It appears many of them were running around poisoning each other. Sick of your marriage? Try arsenic! Rival lover capturing the affections of your one-true-love? Arsenic! Bored? Arsenic!
Nicolas la Reynie was given the unenviable and seemingly impossible task of uncovering the truth about the poisonings. Accessories, accomplices, and perpetrators alike were called in for “questioning” (aka, interrogation under extreme torture). Special tribunals were created specifically to handle the problem with discretion, so as not to overly embarrass the King’s court. The Epilogue puts it best:
“The numbers are staggering: Between April 1679 and July 1682, the Aresenal tribunal met 210 times, questioned 442 people, put 218 of them in prison, executed 34, and sentenced another 28 to life in prison or the galleys”.
Knowing the numbers, it probably comes as no surprise that the one drawback to this book was the sheer number of characters. There were so many names to keep track of, and real-life plot twists to follow; it makes for a slightly confusing history. Occasionally, I found myself losing focus; needing to reread a paragraph to regain my attention. It was mostly a fascinating, absorbing read, though. If you like historical fiction, or want to give the genre a try, this is a worthy addition to your to-be-read pile.
A quick personal aside, I happened to be finishing this book while visiting my parents-in-law, who are French! My father-in-law is a tremendous, extraordinary chef. As I was chatting with him about the book, he happened to be preparing the first course of the meal he’d planned for the evening, a chilled cauliflower soup à la Dubarry. Coincidentally, the soup was named after one of Louis’ mistresses, Comtesse du Barry. Granted, she was his final mistress, so her time with Louis came after the time period of the book. All the same, I was tickled by the coincidence. It’s funny how life comes together with such complimentary detail.