The 15th Century Detective

Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager

Eric Jager’s Blood Royal (in bookstores beginning tomorrow) offers a fascinating look at a key moment in French history and its aftermath: the 1407 murder of Louis of Orleans. If this tale were historical fiction, I might dismiss it as unbelievably convoluted, but this is non-fiction, drawing particularly on a lengthy (30 feet!) parchment roll documenting the work of Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris, in investigating this murder. Forget Eugene Francois Vidoq—Guillaume is the original French detective and rather a good one at that.

At the start of the 15th Century, France was unstable, to say the least. Partway through the Hundred Years’ War, the country was ruled by Charles VI, whose sobriquets included both “the beloved” and “the mad.” Prone to lapses in sanity that could last for a few weeks to more than a year, Charles apparently ruled well when he was able, but when he wasn’t his brother Louis of Orleans ruled in his stead. As one of a group of Valois brothers, cousins, and uncles who made up the nobility of France, Louis was a not-undeserving lightning rod for discontent among the masses and his fellow nobility.

Once Louis has been murdered, Guillaume has the unenviable task of finding those responsible. His methods included techniques we would find familiar: depositions, searches for physical evidence. They also included methods that are no longer in use: the chaining of streets and rivers to slow traffic, the locking of city gates, and (though he seems not to have resorted to this on the case of Louis’ murder) torture.

I don’t want to offer any spoilers here (though if you want them, you can easily consult the historical record). In its best moments, this book reads like an exquisitely crafted detective novel, with rich, precise prose and pacing that make it hard to stop reading. Near the end, the book becomes slightly less engaging as it moves from Guillaume’s story to a tale of in-fighting among French noble factions (all of whom were willing to make temporary alliance with the English enemy), with just a bit of Joan of Arc and her defense of the Dauphin thrown in. Without Guillaume’s character, who with his erudition and critical thinking seems to bridge the gap between his medieval era and the reader’s modern one, the book feels less solidly structured and loses its narrative momentum. But even in its weaker moments (and what’s weak here is stronger than the bulk of popular history on the market) the book remains compelling.

One of the delights of this book is that it depicts of ordinary lives along with those of the nobility that are usually better documented. Guillaume and his staff take depositions from a landlord, several barbers, a nursing mother, and other common citizens, leaving a record that is remarkable not only for its rarity, but for its detail.

This is a book that will appeal to a wide readership: fans of historical fiction, of history proper, and of mystery and detective novels. Rather than spreading the narrative too thin in melding these genres, Jager offers pleasures, and fascinating information, for everyone.

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