As the night falls and shadows grow longer, I make my way towards the Place Du Châtelet from the backstreets off the Hotel De Ville, smartly avoiding the shopping and tourist crowds of rue de Rivoli while taking in the majestic views of the riverside. The person I’m looking for, is monsieur Jacques Sirgent, researcher of vampires, scholar of the occult, and out host for tonight as we attempt to solve a mysterious 300-old crime case.
I always thought of Paris as one of those cities best experienced at night : the evening haze of a warm August evening over the Seine is already creeping over the bankside to the nearby streets, finally emptying of the endless city breaker horde that moves on to the scheduled brasseries and nightlife of their package : We’re ready to claim back those streets and investigate the scene of a series of very old vanishings, almost forgotten by most..
Not by us though, not until we get to the very bottom of this case. I am running slightly late, and therefore pacing somewhat more excitedly to reach our meeting point : the precise spot where the now defunct Grand Châtelet used to stand. It was a fearsome stronghold overlooking the Pont-Au-Change, a crucial bridge crossing into Ile de la Cite, whose magistrates were charged with upholding the king’s justice in the region. The area around Le Châtelet is now full of chic shops, malls and brasseries as well as a major transport hub – one of the busiest thoroughfares of the French capital. But turn back the clock to the late 1600s, and imagine one of the darkest parts of ancient Paris, with the sickening smell from the butcheries of the central market at Les Halles wafting over the area and combining with the the stink of the confluence of Paris’ sewers into the Seine next to Pont-Au-Change : This was where the formidable Grand Châtelet stood, with its infamous gaol reportedly being a hell far worse than that of the Bastille, its wretched prisoners going in but seldom coming out… not through the main gate at least. This cold dungeon was demolished in the early 19th century to make way for the current Place du Châtelet, dominated by the ornate Fontaine du Palmier, an imperial column and fountain commemorating Napoleon Bonaparte’s early Republican military victories.
I meet Jacques across the fountain’s Sphinx, standing under the gloomy light of an old street lamp. He’s holding a mysterious book and a good umbrella, and he’s full of purpose : “It’s not fully dark yet” he ponders the lingering summer dusk. “and what we’re about to investigate is best experienced undercover of the dark”. I recognize in him a nocturnal man, more comfortable at night time than in the sunlight. We make our way towards the Louvre, and his immediate interest is London and its Victorian crime of crimes : he is testing me with incisive questions about Jack the Ripper and the prevalent theories around the monster’s identity. It’s a case I am well familiar with, and we agree in disappointment about how the irreversible modernization of Whitechapel has all but eradicated most local remnants of those horrors. “I have a new theory I am working on” he says in a conspiratorial tone. I carefully look around us to see if anyone’s overhearing : the coast is clear. I nod for him to go ahead : “Bram Stoker did it” he says. Jacques is an experienced researcher and author of many apocryphal books, and therefore able to argue convincingly about how Bram Stoker could have committed the heinous Jack the Ripper murders to specifically cause the intrigue that captured the imagination of Londoners. This makes sense and would have helped him launch his macabre literary career with a series of horror novels, the most famous of which is Dracula, the well known tale of the blood-sucking vampire count. We argue excitedly about the merits of this groundbreaking theory, not noticing the moment when the street lamps turn unexpectedly on : The night has finally arrived.
We have reached the Louvre, and now standing between the majesty of Perrault’s Classical colonnade and the old church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, the infamous site of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. The screams of a thousand slaughtered Huguenots start to echo through my mind, because Jacques is perfectly at home with the history of the surroundings and brings everything to life with his outstanding oratory : He now relates about how the first – and oldest – police force in the world, the Maréchaussée, was instituted in Paris and moves on to provide an engrossing narrative of the strange disappearances that terrorized the Parisian population during the reign of Louis XIV, the subsequent appointment of Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie as the Lieutenant General of the newly raised police force, but especially focuses on the less known aspects of his frantic and even subversive efforts to solve the mystery. I hear for the first time of the eligible but mysterious Madame Zavirowska and the strange happenings at the goldsmith’s guild of Rue Des Orfèvres … could all this be related to the mystery of the missing persons – and how?
I need a break, and since Café Momus, the legendary Bohemian hangout next to Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois has closed since the 1850’s, we opt for the next appropriate establishment, the Café Bar A la Tour in the nearby Rue Bertin Poirée: It is rumoured that Alexandre Dumas himself conceived the story of the Three Musketeers on location, but it also stands to reason that due to its proximity to the Grand Châtelet it was probably frequented by kingsmen and Maréchaussée types during the rein of Le Roi Soleil .
We are discussing the clues collected so far and considering the mystery over some beer and an assiette de fromages of significant flavour. Then we step outside as the clock chimes midnight, and we’re heading into the maze of lamp post lit narrow streets, after the last chapter of the mystery, seeking signs and answers..
With special thanks to Jacques Sirgent
All photos © explorabilia except the public domain image of “The Place De L’Apport-Paris in Front of the Grand Chatelet, Before 1802” by Thomas Naudet
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