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Read an Excerpt
For Gabriel-Nicolas de La Reynie, the Poisons Affair began in such an ordinary way, routine. Or it should have been routine. La Reynie had been Lieutenant-General of Police exactly one day and here was a body. His first.
And he really had no clue what to do.
La Reynie had been a judge with quiet chambers and a library filled with the classics, Greek and Roman philosophers always there to calm his mind and steady his hand. But then he was appointed to the newly created post by His Majesty, charged with transforming Paris from a wretched, stinking, dangerous place into a modern city. He had been studying, planning for weeks: clean the garbage out of the streets, catch the criminals, install lanterns to chase away the shadows and make the night safe. La Reynie’s predecessor, the Criminal Lieutenant, had been killed by robbers; then the Civil Lieutenant also died, quite possibly by poison. Now La Reynie had to replace both.
He was meeting with Sergeant Dupont to discuss the street lanterns when they were urgently summoned. “Poison!” cried the citizens, who led them to a scene of tangled bedclothes, stench of vomit and bloody diarrhea, the corpse’s face grimacing in agony. The black robed doctor was putting away his implements preparing to leave.
La Reynie glanced at the door—the weeping family had been exiled from the room—and asked, “Doctor, we were summoned here with a claim this death is suspicious. Do you believe that to be the case?”
The doctor gazed at the body, his wrinkled face a puzzle. “The symptoms are consistent with arsenic poisoning, but—”
He sighed. “If it was arsenic, the poisoner was very careless.”
“It could be arsenicum, rat poison. If arsenic is consumed on an empty stomach, symptoms are immediate and death soon. If taken with food, the signs are less immediately apparent and death delayed, but inevitable. I have heard that to avoid suspicion, arsenic should be administered over several weeks. The victim grows ill, and weak, and finally succumbs. The symptoms are not as obvious and the cause difficult to detect.”
La Reynie turned to Dupont. Surely, he would know how to handle this. “Sergeant? Your opinion?”
Dupont, portly and stolid, shrugged. “The relatives claim the widow was unfaithful, and besides, she detested her husband.”
“And that is all? No other proof?”
“This is the third suspicious death this month. Same symptoms.” He looked at La Reynie with an inquiring eyebrow as if to say, don’t you know what to do?
La Reynie turned to the doctor. “Is it at all possible to prove it was poison?”
The doctor sighed and looked at La Reynie with a condescending smile. “No, monsieur, not conclusively.” He shut his little bag and walked out.
La Reynie looked back down at the body. Merde. Should he warn the King?
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