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.