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Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black

Published by Henry Holt and Co. on June 6, 2017

When John Banville turns from literary fiction to literary crime fiction, he writes under the name Benjamin Black. Wolf on a String is a medieval crime novel. Benjamin Black’s customary literary prose style is on display, and the story he tells is interesting, although he doesn’t play by the rules that readers might expect a whodunit to follow.

Late on a winter night in 1599, Christian Stern finds the body of a young woman on the streets of Prague. The woman, he soon learns, was the daughter of Dr. Kroll, the emperor’s physician. The young woman was also the Emperor’s mistress. Of course, Stern is assumed to be the murderer.

Stern’s fortunes are reversed after Emperor Rudolf, through his Chamberlain, takes an interest in Stern, who has studied natural philosophy and who, thanks to a dream the Emperor had, is regarded as heaven-sent. With the help of a dwarf, Stern investigates the murder.

So who committed the foul deed? Was it the Emperor’s jealous concubine? Was it the Emperor’s jealous Chamberlain? Was it the dwarf? It falls to Stern to solve the murder … or risk the Emperor’s wrath.

The story is one of medieval conspiracy, as various players plot against the Emperor or each other. The plot is intricate but not unduly confusing. The whodunit is not one the reader will likely solve, however, as key information is revealed from out of the blue (or out of the soot) only at the novel’s end. That might be a drawback for readers who hope to solve the mystery ahead of its resolution. The story is entertaining, however, as much for the setting and characters as for the plot.

As one would expect from a Benjamin Black novel, Stern is a full character occupying a rich world. His chance interaction with Kepler reminds the reader of the difficulty that scientists faced in a world that was intent on clinging to its assumptions (a difficulty that has never been overcome and is particularly relevant today, given the hostility that some politicians feel toward scientists who voice unhappy truths).

Stern also reveals the strengths and frailties of human nature as he deals with attraction/seduction involving a couple of women, including the Emperor’s mistress. As Stern is warned more than once but can’t quite process, he treads on dangerous ground as he pursues both a killer and his own desires.

Other characters are less developed, but this isn’t a long novel, and they have enough personality to bring them to life. The medieval setting seems realistic enough, although the details of Prague and of the lives of its inhabitants at the end of the sixteenth century are a bit hazy. Still, the novel isn’t meant to be an historical treatise. It works well enough as a medieval crime and conspiracy story to warrant my recommendation.


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