I am a history buff, and years ago I stumbled on the Affair of the Poisons: in the 17th century poison and witchcraft permeated the court of Louis XIV. I was fascinated: did Louis’ mistress have a black mass celebrated over her beautiful naked body? Historians have been arguing over that for years. The tempestuous marquise was certainly no angel, and she was competing with every pretty face at court for Louis’ wandering eye. When the King learned about poison and witchcraft at court, he appointed Lieutenant-General of Police Nicolas de La Reynie to investigate. Soon, suspects were pointing their grimy fingers at the marquise—but how do you arrest the King’s mistress?
My varied background helped me figure it all out: I have a MS in Clinical Psychology and a former career as a private investigator, plus I am a practicing astrologer. I devoured stacks of trial transcripts, diaries and letters, focusing on the marquise and La Reynie, the first modern police officer, who uncovered a massive ring of poisoners and con artists. These so-called “witches” were nothing like “wise women” or today’s Wicca: they lured in gullible clients with promises of love spells, then advised them how to get rid of a troublesome spouse—with poison. The suspects claimed the marquise was a client of the witch La Voisin, burned at the stake. Worse, she was linked to the infamous black mass.
But she wasn’t the only one. Several noblewomen also got caught up in the scandal, and like the desperate marquise, they were all trapped: prisoners of their fathers, brothers, husbands. Disobey, and you might find yourself locked up in a convent. The noblemen too could not leave Versailles and the King’s presence, or they would risk losing any chance of advancement. In my book, the courtiers compare their existence with the creatures trapped in the Versailles menagerie, with His Majesty as the gamekeeper dispensing both discipline and rewards. Desperate, they resorted to fortunetellers and purveyors of poison.
The suspects whispered of a criminal mastermind behind the poisons, and even a plot to kill the marquise. What really happened? To fill in the blanks I needed to create a fictional character, someone wide-eyed and innocent; so along came Sylvie, a young embroiderer. She went to work in the household of a prime suspect, and the gates of the Versailles menagerie clanged shut behind her.
I am now working on a sequel to The Menagerie set in Les Gobelins, the manufactory that made Versailles’ tapestries. The artisans were Huguenots, Protestants faced with either converting at sword point or leaving—and leaving was illegal.
FranÇoise-AthÉnaÏs de Rochechouart de Mortemart had to have Louis, King of France, but his other mistresses stood in the way. Then she meets the very helpful sorceress and AthÉnaÏs gets her wish. But soon Louis hears tales of witchcraft and poison, a conspiracy spreading through his court—like the beasts in the Versailles menagerie, courtesans are clawing their way to his favor, and his bed. He orders Lieutenant General of Police Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie to investigate. Mysterious deaths mount while La Reynie presses on, hauling in witches, charlatans, and the nobility alike. Grimy fingers point to AthÉnaÏs, the King’s mistress, with whispers of a black mass celebrated over her naked body. Then La Reynie discovers a plot to kill her.
Judy Willmore is a former journalist, then private investigator, and now a psychotherapist who practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her historical mystery The Menagerie was published in 2021 by Artemesia Press, and she is now working on a sequel.