Episode 41: Holly Tucker

Alone, Pontchartrain inspected the black case. It was secured with not one but two sets of wax seals imprinted with La Reynie’s official insignia. Pontchartrain cracked open the brittle seals with a small knife and inserted the key into the lock… Removing one large stack of pages, he placed the papers on the table and turned each gingerly. He saw names of France’s highest nobility. Alongside them were scrawled the words “death,” “poison,” “murdered.”

— Holly Tucker, City of Light, City of Poison

I am so pleased to welcome my first true-crime writer — all the more so because Holly Tucker brings her true crime tales to life from the pages of history. The central character of her latest book, City of Light, City of Poison is Nicolas de La Reynie, the first police chief of Paris, and the man who quite literally created the City of Light. 

City of Light, City of Poison gives us an insider’s look into The Affair of the Poisons, the scandal which rocked the Sun King’s court. Holly’s book opens with King Louis XIV himself destroying what he thought were the only records of the investigation. Lucky for us, Louis was mistaken — and Holly was tenacious. 

Holly is Editor-in-Chief of the marvelous website, Wonders & Marvels: A Community for Curious Minds Who Love History, Its Odd Stories, and Good Reads. My word, who doesn’t? You can also keep tabs on her through her own author website, Holly-Tucker.com

In our interview, she gives a shout-out to authors Laura Hillenbrand and Erik Larson, and I would be failing in my duty to you not to recommend Holly’s other foray into historical true crime, Blood Work, the research for which led her to Nicolas de La Reynie. As this goes live, it is Holly’s launch day for City of Light, City of Poison. You can run over and like her on Facebook right here

While you’re at it, go like Destination Mystery on Facebook as well. Meanwhile, though, you can enjoy this interview. If you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below.

Au revoir!

— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Holly Tucker

Laura Brennan: A professor of French History at Vanderbilt University, Holly Tucker writes extensively on true crime in early Europe. She has tackled murder and mayhem during the Scientific Revolution in her award-winning book, Blood Work, as well as childbirth and fairy tales in Pregnant Fictions. Her most recent book, City of Light, City of Poison, follows the first police chief of Paris as he works to root out organized crime and foil a cabal of poisoners, witches and unholy priests.

Holly, thank you for joining me.

Holly Tucker: Thanks for having me.

LB: So, normally, in my interviews, I start by chatting about you and how you got into this, but I cannot wait to delve into this book with you. So let us start with City of Light, City of Poison. For someone who hasn’t picked it up yet, what’s the one thing they need to know in order to understand our conversation?

HT: That it’s a true crime mystery. It might read like fiction, but it’s absolutely true.

LB: When you say it might read like fiction, it does. It reads like a fast-paced novel where you’re never sure who you should be rooting for.

HT: There are so many different characters in this story as I researched it, it was really hard for me to try to figure out who exactly was up to no good and who is innocent. And I think that the biggest challenge in writing this book, and then also I hope to convey to readers, the pleasure of trying to solve the mystery and the puzzle themselves.

LB: Your central character, although he was a real person, that first police chief of Paris, Nicolas de La Reynie. Because Paris up to that point didn’t really have what we think of today as a police force.

HT: No, it didn’t. In fact I think it’s safe to say it was considered to be the crime capital of the world. And the streets were foul and dirty, dangerous and most of the policing was done, if you could call it policing, by perhaps a well-placed neighbor in one of the quartiers of Paris. And finally Louis the Sun King, whom we associate with Versailles, learned and decided there was no way he was going to be able to create this magnificent reign if the primary city of his kingdom was a city that had such a bad reputation all around Europe. So that’s why he appointed, in 1667, Nicolas de La Reynie as the very first police lieutenant, first police chief.

LB: There are so many things we take for granted today, indoor plumbing being among my favorites.

HT: Yes, isn’t that a nice luxury?

LB: And they didn’t have that at all back then.

HT: No, so they would throw out the chamber pots in the streets. People would be moving through the muck of daily household garbage in some of the very streets that we associate with, as being the most luxurious now in Paris. All of that muck and filth — I’ve had people ask me, wouldn’t you love to be able to go back to 17th century France for just a day? And I think that I might, but I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to Paris. My biggest concern is that if I did go back to 17th century France and I said that I really would like to spend the day in the court of Louis XIV, I probably would be coming back as a servant and never get to see the King or any of the luxurious dresses and fancy jewelry that all of the nobility had. So I think it’s better for me, actually, to spend my time in the 17th century buried in manuscript documents and try to make sense of what I missed by not living there in the 17th century.

LB: The dichotomy of the incredibly wealthy, I mean the Sun King, the wealth of Versailles, the life in court, and then the people who barely eke out a living on the street — that was part of the daily life of Paris, too.

HT: You know, the splendor and squalor of Paris is completely striking. You can have these women and men in amazingly gorgeous silk clothing while you have women on the streets holding their starving babies. It really was a heartbreaking place to experience if one was not in the upper classes.

LB: I might be forgiven, having read your book, but it seems to me that certainly before Nicolas de La Reynie took office, it seems like the most likely way for you to die was to be killed.

HT: Well, I think that there are lots of ways that one could die equally less pleasant. Yes, pistols were coming into fashion, handheld firearms were increasingly on the streets and were also increasingly concealed. Not to mention all of the men from the nobility down to their servants and their lackeys were carrying swords. But it’s also important to point out that this is long before anesthesia, antisepsis and antibiotics — any illness could really fell you. Life was brutal, it was also short in many cases, but we’re also talking about the 17th century. Despite all of that, you have some of the more important political changes, scientific changes, artistic changes, literary innovations that are happening. So in that really difficult experience, you have some of the most extraordinary products of Western civilization coming to fruition.

LB: So, for Nicolas — I hope you won’t mind if I call him Nicolas —

HT: Actually, we can call him Nick. Because my mother, when I was struggling to finish this book, my mother kept pushing me. Something showed up at the front door one day, and it was a box of lucky bamboo, these lucky bamboo plants. And there was a card in it and it said, “Hi, Holly. Thank you for telling the entire world my story. Now get to work and get it done. Love, Nick.”

LB: Excellent! I love your mom.

HT: So we, in my family, we’ve been calling him Nick now for a couple of years.

LB: Okay, so, excellent, so Nick — the thing that I found most astonishing was how the city was, as you described, a powder keg at that point. Everybody was armed, there was no police force, and the fact that when Nick came on board, he was able to transform Paris instead of having it blow up under him. It really could have gone either way.

HT: You know, I hadn’t thought about it. He is a force of nature. He’s very organized, very methodical, and he comes in really wanting to make a difference. And he sets out pretty much from day one establishing these decrees as broad as, People, you’re going to stop throwing stuff out your windows, and every morning you’re going to wake up or you’ll be fined. And you’re going to get out there with brooms and you will sweep the space outside the front of your homes. And he coordinated bells ringing in the city to signal when it was time to get out and clean the streets, to signal when it was time to raise lanterns. That’s another thing that just fascinates me, how within a year of him taking his position, Paris went from a very dark and foreboding city at night — just think about walking around Paris and not be able to see the hand in front of your face, except for little glimmers of light that might come from candles from various windows in the homes that you pass — to the City of Light. The capital of light. He coordinates that by quarter, by sector. He has these huge candles made, multi-wick candles. He designs, with the help of engineers, these huge lanterns to be able to put the candles into, that can be pulled up on pulleys and hoisted up to the corners of different street intersections.

Now, I think that we have to take with a grain of salt, he does have a fair bit of ego. I would say less than some of the other folks that we run into in the book, including especially the Sun King, Louis XIV. I do have a problem believing his statement that within a year, even the horses were slipping around the streets of Paris because they were so clean. But you’re right, it could have easily gone the other direction. There could have been a complete pushback against Nicolas de La Reynie, against Nick in trying to get Parisians wrestled. I think a lot of it had to do with the significant fines that he was very ready to impose on anyone who didn’t do what his edicts said they would do. I think it also didn’t hurt that he had a direct connection to the King, so anyone who overstepped the bounds, even down to the level later on of swearing. One of my favorite references in the book is, there were a few men in a handball court. Handball was the premier sport in Paris at this time. And one of the balls happen to hit one of the men in his more tender parts, and he swore. Actually, he swore up a storm. And it was reported to the police chief. And the police chief brought him in, read the guy the riot act, we’re not sure what happened, but certainly the threat that he could be put in prison for the rest of his life. And also that message getting around the entire city of Paris was probably very helpful.

He was a leader with a very firm hand. And at the very beginning, I think, a firm hand with great intentions. The challenge that I had with Nick was that, at the very beginning he’s a really upstanding guy. He really wants to make a difference in the community that he is serving. He also is very loyal to the King. And at the very beginning and throughout the first part of the book, you want to cheer him on. He’s a go-getter. But then it’s the shift in the moral and ethical quandaries that he has to face as he starts to realize that clearing up Paris is not just clearing up the physical spaces, the lighting, the streets, right? It’s also dealing with the people who live in the shadows: the poisoners, the witches, the abortionists, and then the rogue priests. He has a really hard time figuring out the best way to handle it as an ethical, upstanding person.

LB: How did you first come across Nick’s story?

HT: As a researcher in French history, I’ve gotten bits and pieces of, snippets and references to it. It was really only when I was writing Blood Work, which was the early story of blood transfusions, the first blood transfusions took place in the 17th century. And they were oddly enough, animals to human, and not surprisingly extraordinarily dangerous. And I uncovered in my research a case where a blood transfusionist was accused of murdering his patient by using the new technique of blood transfusion. And as I started to dig around that true crime story around one of the most common practices in modern medicine today, and the crime then, it turned out that the translation this is not the one who killed his patient. Actually the patient was murdered by a cabal of folks who really couldn’t bear the idea of transfusion as a new practice. The first patient of transfusion was poisoned by this cabal of doctors, and that was the first book. And so it was happening just around the same time as the Affair of the Poisons. So poison was everywhere. I’m looking at the poisoning of this first blood transfusion patient, and then I started to dig around for that book with, you know, what’s happening with poison in Paris? It was only then, in fact I mention it a little bit in Blood Work, it was only then I was like, goodness, gosh, there is way more here than I can ever tackle in the first book. And this could make a really, really good story.

LB: You are a detective yourself. Your research is piecing together what actually happened.

HT: Oh, I never thought about it that way. Ooh, I like that comparison. I think that when you do historical research, I think you do end up becoming something of a detective. You’ve got to root out not only where you think you can find existing evidence to help you understand what happened and then to help understand what couldn’t have happened, I also, when I was writing City of Light, City of Poison, I also felt a bit like a judge. Once you get that evidence as a researcher, when you need to present it to readers, you can be really clear about what you’re including, what you’re not including, what you can speculate about and what you can’t speculate about. I tend to steer far away from speculation in my writing and leaving them more for the epilogue, where I can talk a little bit about the questions I couldn’t answer. The epilogue allows me maybe to help fill in those things that I just, in good conscience, couldn’t address in the book.

But, yes, I think a detective and then a judge. And then, probably a lawyer, too, in the sense that I need to present my case and my reading to readers in a way that doesn’t keep them from making their own arguments or counter arguments, or even that doesn’t keep them from being able to question the other aspects of the story and the questions they have as they read.

LB: As you were digging around finding things, what surprised you the most?

HT: I think there are surprises at different levels. I remember going through the manuscripts. And the existing documentation on this is just overwhelming to the point of, there were several moments in my research where I was so overwhelmed by the massive amount of documentation that existed, all in manuscript form — you know, thousands upon thousands of 17th century manuscript pages. Notes that were taken during interrogations and tortures, court records, letters by potential clients to the poisoners. Nick’s own personal journal of his thoughts as he reviewed the case. Going to those documents, what surprised me are the little bits and pieces of daily life that I would find. For example, I came across several playing cards, 17th-century playing cards in the archives. And those were interesting in and of themselves because how many people actually get to hold 17th-century playing cards in their hand and take a look at how they were produced? I flipped one over and on it was written on the back an address and a reference. It basically said something like, if you’re looking for a boarding house here’s the place you need to go and talk to so-and-so. Right? That’s the stuff that I just love, that surprises me.

For the story itself, I think that what really surprised me was one of the main characters. So there is a poisoner named Madame Voisin, and Voisin lives in probably the most dangerous of Parisian neighborhoods, not too far from the Louvre, just a ways up from the Louvre and next to the Opera in Paris, modern day Opera. And she’s a nasty woman. Fascinating but nasty. And she was fascinating and interesting, her stories are remarkably odd, but there was one character I was absolutely mesmerized by: her daughter. And the book opens, early, with her daughter who I think is at that point is 8 years old and is running an errand for her mother. And at different points of the book, you get a glimpse of the daughter as she gets older. And the first couple of years as I was researching this, I had a great sympathy for that young girl. Thinking about all the things that she probably witnessed. Her mother drank a lot, she was probably violent to her, there was a whole stream of strangers, women who were desperate, seeking abortions. Other women who wanted their palms read or were hoping to buy what they called inheritance powders to be able to bump off their husbands or other troublesome family members. And I thought to myself, this poor girl. It’s only later in the story when I spend a lot of time looking at her testimony, and she’s now in her early 20s, that I got a sense that is not so easy to say this poor girl. But that’s the bit that surprised me, is that just about the time that I would think that I got a handle on someone’s actions, motivations, maybe even character, digging deeper would give me more texture. She surprised the heck out of me.

LB: The way real people unveil themselves in this book is one of the great pleasures of reading it. The way you that I see bit by bit, deeper and deeper into all of the main characters I thought was just splendidly done.

HT: Thank you. They are a complicated bunch, aren’t they?

LB: I was so interested in the forensics, the very, very rudimentary forensics that they had. The apothecary was tasting something to see if it was poisonous, which seemed like a very bad idea to me.

HT: You know, it’s funny that you mention that, because finished copies landed on my doorstep and I did what I think many authors do, you pull it out and you’re like, I can’t believe it’s done! And I started to flip through the pages and I actually started rereading the book. And there’s a point where you’re distanced enough from it where you’re like, oh my gosh! You look at it new, as if you almost didn’t write it. And when I was doing the research for exactly that scene that you brought up about the investigator who is going through all of these different cases and boxes and looking at the vials and opening up these folded packages. When I was in the thick of it, it all made sense. Right? Because I’ve seen it time and time again, that they would just take a little, they’d take their finger, sometimes their pinky finger and just dip it on their tongue, get a sense of it. And it was only when I saw that scene again with the distance, and not being in the thick of my research documents, I was like, what an idiot! I couldn’t believe that he did that either. But after having looked at it for so long, you get into the mindset of the 17th-century folks almost to a degree where you are living in their own logic. You’re living with them in their logic. And you begin to think like them. So that was the first time that I actually pulled back and reread that as a modern reader and just sort of hit my hand on my head going, what? What? But it happened.

LB: What drew you in the first place into this field? Why an historian?

HT: I think there are two questions, why an historian, and why an historian of early periods. And I think goes back to, I’m realizing what you said about being a detective, I’ve always, even as a young child, I always loved it if there was some sort of information I didn’t know. I loved to spy on the adults and overhear snippets and try to make sense out of things that didn’t immediately make sense. So why an historian is because nothing is more mysterious and fragmented than the past and trying to make sense of it. Why an historian of 17th century is because I’m so fascinated by it. Louis XIV fascinates me because you have this idea of Versailles being this palace of perfection. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s always this underbelly lurking in the 17th century, things that don’t make sense. That go against the explicit attempts of the king and society at the time to put order to the radical disorder of society.

I think I also love the time period, this came up as well in Blood Work because this is like the modern era starting to formulate itself. The things that we now take for granted. The very idea of blood circulation for example, the discovery was only a couple, maybe 20 or 30 years old. The Copernican system of the earth moving around the sun, that was also quite recent. They didn’t discover the sperm and the egg until the 1670s, exactly the time City of Light, City of Poison takes place. So there are all these fundamental discoveries that they can’t make heads or tails out of that we now take as articles of fact and faith. And I like the messy moments. A lot. And I think that’s the thing I enjoy most about being an historian.

LB: What is next for you?

HT: I’m working right now on honing the next topic. I spend a fair bit of each day sifting through old newspapers — that’s the advantage now of moving into later periods, you have newspapers and, depending on when, photographs. Trying to figure out where I want to go, and also there’s the big question of who do you want to live with for four years? I actually resisted at first City of Light, City of Poison, preferring to do a different type of proposal. So I threw a couple of proposals the direction of my agent, my editor, and they just weren’t right. And then I finally circled back to City of Light, City of Poison. So I have some ideas anchored in the 19th century and I’m in the process of writing about three different proposals. And I already know what will happen. This is what happened last time: the one proposal that I’m the most excited about and the most nervous to write will be the one that I end up proposing last to my editor and my agent, and they’ll like that one the best.

LB: Other writers: who inspires you?

HT: The authors that inspire me the most are not necessarily the true crime, historical true crime writers. Authors who know how to shape a really good story, a story that as a writer myself, when I read it, I want to go back and outline it, and do a reverse outline. And figure out how the heck they put these disparate parts together. And I think Laura Hillenbrand does that quite well. Seabiscuit, that’s one of my go-tos, when I really want to be able to get a sense of pacing, sentence length, a way to bring readers into the sights and sounds and smells of the time period. I’m absolutely fascinated by the opening of Seabiscuit because it opens with one of the main characters on a trip out West. I said, this is really interesting, what is this opening scene doing? What it is, it’s got a character in movement that is seeing this landscape and is bringing us with him. And by bringing us with him, the narrator is actually taking us back gently into time. Into the logic of that time.

And so there are other books. Of course I’ve done a lot of reading of Erik Larson’s work. Brilliant storyteller himself, he also tends to open with someone in movement. The challenge that I had with City of Light, City of Poison was trying to figure out how long the chapter should be, how they should end. And I think Larson does a really, really good job with maintaining a sense of suspense and read from chapter to chapter and makes you want to turn the page. It is tricky to write really good historical nonfiction that is true to the period, and makes readers want to turn the page.

LB: Well, you open with a box of secrets in motion.

HT: Yeah! Could it get better, could the story get better that all of these documents — not all of them, fortunately several thousand of pages were saved — but that the king himself after the Affair of the Poisons ends and all of these people have been tortured and tried, and his very own mistresses are implicated. That he destroys many of the most incriminating documents the day after the chief of police dies. And when I realized that, because I realized that early in my research, that there was a corpus of documents missing. And that’s one of the reasons why I was so hesitant to write this book, because I thought, if the key documents are gone how am I ever going to reconstruct this? Because the king burned them at Versailles. When I realized that actually the police chief was keeping his own separate diary and summarizing those documents that had been destroyed, I thought, I have to write this book, and I have to open with this scene. And I think, I hope, it drew you in.

LB: Absolutely. And it does more than that, it sets the tone for the entire piece. This is about deep secrets that can never see the light of day.

HT: Um-hmm.

LB: So if people want to learn more about you, where can they find you online?

HT: My author website, Holly-Tucker.com. I also am on Facebook, my author page is just Holly Tucker, Facebook.com/HollyTucker. And on Twitter, @History_Geek. And I love interacting with readers, so if there’s any type of historical question or any question once someone reads the book that you’d like to explore, I’d love to hear.

LB: Fantastic. Holly, thank you so much for joining me today.

HT: Thank you so much.