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WOLF ON A STRING

Patient readers in no hurry will savor Black’s dark, vivid mural of Prague at the turn of the 16th century.

The first night a young scholar arrives in Prague (in 1599) he becomes entangled in court intrigue and murder.

Black, the pen name for Man Booker Prize–winning novelist John Banville, here impresses with his literary dexterity as he spins from hard-boiled detective fiction (Even the Dead, 2016, etc.) to a rich, expansive, if sometimes discursive, historical mystery. On Christian Stern’s first night in wintry Prague, the 25-year-old scholar and alchemist stumbles across the body of a beautiful woman he guesses to be 17 or 18, “a deep gash across her throat, like a second, grotesquely gaping mouth…her head…resting in a pool of her own life-blood, a black round in which the faint radiance of the heavens faintly glinted.” The young woman was Magdalena Kroll, daughter of Dr. Ulrich Kroll, court physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Of late, Magdalena had deserted her lover, Jan Madek, to become the emperor’s mistress. In this dangerous city, simply being at the site of the murder makes Stern a suspect, and soon the eccentric Rudolph calls him to court. A believer in the occult, the emperor thinks Stern is the manifestation of a dream he had in which Christ sends a savior to him to protect the throne against the Turks. Rudolph charges Stern with finding Magdalena’s murderer, a task hastened by Stern’s fear that if he fails, he will be executed. Shortly, Madek’s body, brutally mutilated, turns up in a moat. Stern’s hunch that Madek killed Magdalena and then was murdered in revenge is dashed when Dr. Stern’s examination of Madek’s corpse finds he was killed well before Magdalena was. Feeling inadequate to the task of solving the crimes, Stern nevertheless persists. His wit and curiosity lend style to the tale he narrates but also slow its pace—the new detective never meets an alley or a character he can’t resist exploring, knowing, and expounding upon. However languorous the tale sometimes becomes, Stern moves it to a denouement that befits the treacherous times.

Patient readers in no hurry will savor Black’s dark, vivid mural of Prague at the turn of the 16th century.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-62779-517-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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