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

WOLF ON A STRING

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 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

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. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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