The year is 1678 . The Sun King Louis XIV graces the throne of France. Perhaps the greatest European king of his generation, Louis’ rule epitomizes the Reign of Absolutism. But while his own people and other European nations are in awe of his court, his millitary success, his generous patronage of the Arts…scandal is just round the corner.
“You notice my dear Desgrez, that in this investigation we come upon a good number of widows.”
Lieutinant Charles Desgraz has recently come to Paris from Normandy. Part of the best policing-force of Europe, Desgraz wants to rise high in the ranks because of his own ambitions and his desire to make his newly-wedded wife, Salonge, wealthy and comfortable. When the novel opens, Charles and Salonge are on their way to the house of a friend who is celebrating Salonge’s birthday. Over there, a woman, Widow Bosse, is drunk enough to let out certain indiscretions about her business which seems to be about providing poison to wives who are tired of their husbands.
When Desgraz conveys this to M. de La Reynie, the Chief of Police, the man is not impressed. Two years before, in 1676, Madame de Brinvilliers had been burnt at the stakes for the murder of her family by the poison obtained through her lover Sainte-Croixe and an aquaintance of his, the Italian Exili. After that the priests round Paris had reported to the police of hearing confessions from women of having murdered their husbands. The Police Chief was not interested however and dismissed these as hysteria and derangements. He thinks Widow Bosse too is one of those women.
The ambitious Desgraz, however, thinks that this case might be his ticket to further promotions and decides to trap Widow Bosse with the help of his wife. What begins with a drunkan remark soon snowballs into a conspiracy of gigantic proportions, the network running through the mean streets of Paris to aristocratic houses to even the places of Royalty. The miasma of evil includes poison making, counterfeiting, infanticide, witchcraft, Satanism with all its obscene rituals. Nobody – from the humblest wife tired of a controlling aged husband to renowned generals to the maîtresse-en-titre, the Marquise of Montespan herself -is free from taint.
As panic spreads:
Silver utensils had gone out of fashion, save for those wealthy enough to carry their own cases of knives, forks and cutlery; glasses, plates and dishes were cleaned at table, charming bouquets of flowers and innocent-looking dishes of luscious fruit were regarded with horrible suspicion; a woman feared to handle her Mass book, a man to touch his rosary; as every day fresh arrests were made, the alarm, and horror grew; universal distrust was abroad
Desgraz and Reynie realise that there is one brain working behind all this. the man who is called the Great Author/ Master and who in a note explains his lust for power to the Police Chief:
You do not realize the joy it is to be God and Satan in one—to destroy for the love of destruction, for lust or greed or ambition, as one wishes! You cannot understand the superb sense of power it gives me to walk modestly, unnoticed, perhaps despised, and to know that I have power even over Kings!
This is an interesting historical mystery which had me transported to the intrigues of 17th Century France. However much time may have passed since then certain things are extremely contemporary:
“Is it possible for us to bring these people to justice?” asked Desgrez eagerly.
“I do not think so. I should not dare to take any steps until I have asked the King.”
Desgrez made a gesture of vexation.
“It is hard,” he said bitterly, “to unearth these criminals and then find they are protected by the very highest in the land.”
Also I liked the contrast that the author draws between marriage based on love and support as that of Salonge and Charles and the love affairs of King Louis XIV which despite all the power that he has at hand leave him with feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and even terror. And the thoughts of Madame de Maintenon as she offers advice to the king chilled me to the core.
The novel is peopled with both real and fictional characters. My favourite was the real life figure of Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie often considered to be the founder of the first modern police force. The pragmatic chief who knows that any moment his own life can be forfeit if he dares to dig the dirt too deep yet doggedly carries out his duties:
The Chief of Police, liberal-minded by nature, had long since learned a complete, detached tolerance, and the rather tiresome fanaticism and unbending austerity of Pignata wearied him; there was something unnatural in the bigotry of one so young…
This is the third book that I have read connected to L’affaire des poisons or The Affair of the Poisons after John Dickson Carr’s The Burning Court and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Mille de Scuderi. I’d like to read more on this. Any suggestions?
First Line: As the coach came swinging round the corner the young man pushed his companion still further behind him and held out his cloak in an effort to protect her, but in vain, the wheels of the vehicle, which was swinging heavily on its leathers, splashed over the broken cobbles and cast a shower of liquid filth over the girl’s camelot dress of blue and silver.
First published: 1936
Source: Project Gutenberg Australia
Other Opinions: She Reads Novels