Benjamin Black can make even murder sound artful.
In the first chapter of Wolf on a String, a young man finds a dead woman on a snowy street deep in a starlit night. "Her head was surrounded by a sort of halo," he tells us, "... a pool of her own life-blood, a black round in which the faint radiance of the heavens faintly glinted."
The loveliness of the book's language comes as no surprise. Benjamin Black is a nom de plume of the Irish writer John Banville, who has won the Booker Prize and an array of other awards for such elegant literary novels as The Sea and Ancient Light.
As Black, Banville has written a number of noir mystery novels, all with historical settings. His seven darkly atmospheric books about a police pathologist named Quirke are set in 1950s Dublin (and are the basis for a BBC series starring Gabriel Byrne); his homage to Raymond Chandler, The Black-Eyed Blonde, is set in Los Angeles in the same decade.
With Wolf on a String, the author leaps back much further in time, to Prague in 1599, when the city was home to Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor. Rudolph ruled much of Eastern Europe and was renowned both for his patronage of arts and sciences and for his energetic and polymorphous sex life.
All of that is central to Wolf on a String, as narrator Christian Stern's desire to find a place at Rudolph's court succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. Stern is a scholar of both science and magic — and he is the man who found teenager Magdalena Kroll (who happened to have been one of Rudolph's mistresses) with her throat cut, on the same night he first arrived in Prague. In one day, Stern is imprisoned and accused of her murder, then freed, introduced to the emperor and set up in his own house.
As the emperor's chamberlain, the smoothly sinister Philipp Lang, tells him, Rudolph has had a dream "that a star would come from the west, a star sent by Christ our Savior himself." Stern's last name in German means "star," his first name is self-explanatory, and he has traveled east to Prague from the city of Wurzburg. That's enough for the mysticism-and-magic-obsessed Rudolph.
The emperor not only swiftly adopts Stern as a confidant, he appoints the young man to solve the murder of Magdalena. It's a job Stern is hopelessly unsuited for — it's hard to imagine a more inept detective, or one more easily distracted.
First he's distracted by his pretty, mute young housekeeper, Serafina, who not only cooks and cleans and slips into his bed but efficiently does him the domestic service of picking the lice out of his hair. (Black is not so prone to romanticize past eras as some writers of historic fiction.)
Stern is even more distracted, and more dangerously so, by the insatiable Caterina Sardo, Rudolph's mistress-in-chief and mother of his children. Soon in her thrall, he tells us, "She seemed a woman who had done much, and would do more: a woman who would do anything."
In addition, he's pretty much constantly distracted by trying to figure out who is who and on whose side in the court, which includes Rudolph, Caterina, Lang, the emperor's high steward Felix Wenzel, magician Dr. Ulrich Kroll (Magdalena's father) and a cruel dwarf named Jeppe Schenckel. (Most of these, along with such cameos as astronomer Tycho Brahe and English magician Edward Kelley, are real people whom Black weaves into his fiction.) In this crew, almost anyone could be a cutthroat.
Stern's story swiftly becomes (appropriately, given its Prague setting) Kafkaesque: "I could make nothing of any of this — the murdered woman, these high officials, this baffling, nightmarish interrogation. I felt like a man who, setting out on horseback at evening, had fallen asleep in the saddle, and now had woken to find himself on an unknown road, in deepest night, lost and confused."
Black couches Stern's confused quest in rich descriptions of elaborate meals, ornate clothing and architecture, exquisite art and Rudolph's famed collection of wonders: "his ivories and enamels, his basilisks and bezoars, his myriad of clocks as they steadily ticked away the dragging hours of his jaded life."
Amid such distractions, in the city called the "Capital of Magic," Stern tries to separate illusion from reality long enough to serve justice — and to stay alive. Seductive as the setting and other characters of Wolf on a String are, though, Stern felt to me a little callow to be an entirely compelling narrator. He made me long for world-weary, middle-aged, endlessly complex Quirke.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.