Holly Tucker is a professor of French and biomedical ethics and society – an unusual combination that perhaps accounts for this book: a history of the Affair of the Poisons, the greatest scandal of the reign of Louis XIV. The affair began with the trial of the Marquise de Brinvilliers in 1675 on suspicion of poisoning her father and two brothers. This gave rise to numerous other allegations of poisoning in high places. It’s a lurid and horrible story that touched the throne: the king’s most famous mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, was among those caught up in it. She was accused of attempting to poison the king after realising that Louis’s attraction to her was fading. Other prominent nobles were implicated too, at least on the fringes, but, apart from the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who was eventually found guilty of murder and executed, most of those involved were lowlifes belonging to the criminal underworld of Paris. Nonetheless, fuel was added to the flames of suspicion by Brinvilliers’s assertion that ‘half of the nobility have done the same things, if I felt like talking, I’d ruin them all’.
The hero of Tucker’s book is Nicolas de la Reynie, a lawyer from Limoges who served as police chief of Paris. During his tenure he cleaned up the city and provided it with street lighting for the first time, but it is his investigation into the Affair of the Poisons