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by Oliver Pötzsch ; translated by Anthea Bell

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-547-74010-2
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Who was that Cowled Man? Austrian novelist Pötzsch serves up an ambitious though familiar tale of Mad King Ludwig. 

Clues tucked away in old books, secret societies (cowled, naturally, the better to hide) seeking to keep the secrets in those musty pages safe from prying eyes, history hinging on the occult—it’s well-worked territory. That said, Pötzsch (The Beggar King, 2013) will endear himself to independent booksellers everywhere by making the hero of the piece one of their kind (“[h]ours of dealing with damaged books had hit him harder than he liked to admit”), if one unusually full of lethal surprises (“[t]he king would never have believed the bookseller capable of killing one of the strongest knights in cold blood”). At his side stands Sara Lengfeld, ace art detective—“Art detective? More like a female Philip Marlowe,” thinks Steven, antiquarian bookseller, appreciatively. How a secret diary has come into Steven’s hands is one of many implausibilities in a story that begs and begs again the suspension of disbelief, but no matter: Anyone who’s visited Bavaria and toured the great Neuschwanstein Castle will have wondered why Ludwig II, the brilliant and eccentric ruler of that formerly independent state, wound up deposed and dead under very strange circumstances, and Pötzsch offers an intriguing, entertaining answer. Moreover, his novel includes a virtual book-within-book tour of Ludwig’s two palaces, along with that castle, in which clues unfold at a brisk pace. The writing is occasionally clunky (“His headache the next morning told Steven that the Montepulciano had been a bit stronger than he was used to”; “[t]he ramshackle horse-drawn cab tossed Steven roughly back and forth”), but the tale moves along well enough, and it resolves nicely.

Fans of bookish European fiction will enjoy this, the too abundant Dan Brown–ian motions notwithstanding.