Wolf on a String

Benjamin Black, the name under which Irish writer John Banville runs his criminal operations, is best known for his Dublin pathologist, Quirke, and the murders and general wickedness that have come the way of that angst-ridden gloomy guts. In Wolf on a String Black abandons Ireland’s dismal postwar years and steps back to the turn seventeenth century, in Prague — thereby revisiting the scene of his progenitor in Banville’s early novel Kepler.

Christian Stern, a young natural philosopher lately of the University of Würzburg, has just arrived at the imperial city, hoping to make his way into the court of Emperor Rudolf II, a man obsessed with the occult. Within hours, however, he is full of schnapps and wandering the streets in the night, whereupon he comes across the body of a murdered woman with her throat ripped out. The next thing he knows he has been charged with the crime, thrown into a dungeon, and questioned: first by the emperor’s high steward, a sinister individual called Felix Wenzel, and then by the steward’s devious, lethally charming rival, the court’s chamberlain, Philipp Lang. (“I had the impression of being circled about and sniffed at by a sleek and gleaming creature — a panther, say, or some such sinuous, burnished beast.”) Christian’s grasp of the occult arts — magic, alchemy, astrology, hermeticism, and the like — combined with one of Rudolf’s recent dreams, wins him not just escape from suspicion but the emperor’s favor and a place in his court. “And so, amid such drama, tumult and outlandish pantomime, began my sojourn in the Capital of Magic.”

Christian’s first assignment is to discover the murderer of the young woman, who, it turns out, was Magdalena Kroll, one of the emperor’s mistresses. Still, when Benjamin Black serves up a dead body, whodunit procedurals take a backseat to evocation of zeitgeist and glimpses how things work behind the scenes. That is the case here, in spades. Living amid the trappings of grandeur, caught in love’s coils (as it happens), and given to “wine-tainted tattle and braggadocio,” Christian neglects the task of discovering Magdalena’s killer, and for a couple of hundred pages the plot has little momentum.

Be that as it may, the reader is kept fully engaged by the felicity of Black’s writing, its intoxicating brio, and, not least, its hint of the eldritch — so fitting in a world infatuated with the occult and illusion. At one point, hearing a dreadful scuffling outside his door, Christian peers out and sees “a low, bent shape hopping and scampering along . . . I could not be sure it was even a human shape. I had the impression, I could not say why, of a large and general gleefulness, as if the night itself had joined with the fleeing creature to make savage fun of me.”

And, indeed, the novel is populated by a cast of exotics and grotesques, some based in history, some entirely fictional: In addition to Wenzel and Lang, there is Serafina, a beautiful religious novice whose tongue has been cut out; the diabolical dwarf, Jeppe Schenckel, who also appeared in Kepler; Girolamo Malaspina, papal nuncio, gourmandizer, and inveterate schemer; Edward Kelley, alchemic fraudster and onetime associate of “the English magus,” John Dee; Caterina Sardo, an aging beauty absent conscience or restraint, who is the emperor’s main mistress and mother of his children; Don Giulio, her weird, exquisitely unsavory son; and Rudolf himself: “His Imperial and increasingly dotty Majesty.” Christian is seduced by and smitten with Caterina, and it fills him with jealous horror to reflect on the conjunction of Rudolf, Caterina, and the unlovely Giulio — by the thought, as Benjamin Black puts it so nicely, “of Rudolf, that fat frog, lowering the great bloodless soft sack of himself down upon my slender Venus and inflicting upon her tender innards the makings of this sickly-looking mooncalf.”

Christian observes early on that he has “always considered the appearance of things to be no more than a gauzy veil behind which a truer reality is covertly and marvelously at work.” Those, of course, are the thoughts of a young Neoplatonist, but, as it happens, they are also those of a young dupe. Eventually Christian begins to have a “deepening sense . . . of being at the center on an intricately devised, immensely subtle and cruelly malicious game.”

And, yes! International intrigue raises its crafty head: The British diplomat and spy Henry Wotton appears on the scene. A perfidious and highly credible conspiracy emerges, as do shocking revelations, one of which is so creepily described that I shall quote it, as no one who has not read the book will understand what it means: “A mandrake root, bristling with tendrils and all caked with marl, its fork entwined about her white and gleaming limbs.” That is so beautifully horrid that I really do hope Benjamin Black will make this period and its fantastical milieu his own for at least a couple more novels.


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