One of the advantages (or disadvantages depending on the day) of hanging out with writers and spending time on the internet fringes of the publishing industry* is that you have advance warning of books before they reach the bookstores. Sometimes the wait is torture.
Holly Tucker’s latest book, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic and the First Police Chief of Paris, was worth the wait.
Tucker walks the tightrope between scholarship and storytelling with practiced bravado.
City of Light, City of Poison is as tightly structured as an Agatha Christie mystery. She opens with a letter from a dead man and the hint of a past mystery. She follows newly appointed police chief Nicolas de la Reynie step-by-step as his investigation of two brutal murders leads him to discover a deadly network of witches, poisoners, and blasphemers with connections perilously close to the king himself.*** (His investigation also causes him to invent a seventeenth century version of forensic science, including chemical–or at least alchemical–analysis of poisons.) She places his investigation inside the sometimes vicious politics of Versailles with a sure hand. The story had me in its grip from page one. In fact, I read it when I should have been reading books related to my work.****
In a fascinating epilogue, she draws aside the curtain and shares her process of research and writing with the reader, leaving no doubt about the rigor of her scholarship.
Tucker’s last book, Blood Work, was excellent. This book is in a different league altogether. With City of Light, City of Poison she enters the rare list of authors who write historical non-fiction that is truly as gripping as a novel.*****
*Some writers plunge neck deep into publishing news and gossip. To me that feels like plunging up to your neck in swampy water, with a strong possibility of leeches.** I prefer wading in at the edges of a clear mountain river. But I digress.
**If you’re picturing Hepburn and Bogart in The African Queen you’ve got the idea.
***I now have even more admiration for my colleagues at Shelf Awareness who review fiction. Avoiding spoilers while maintaining a sense of the story is hard work.
****I’m paying for it now, but it was worth it.
*****Erik Lawson, David McCullough, Barbara Tuchman, Simon Winchester–like that.