Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black, review by Todd Robins
The setting in Benjamin Black's new mystery--late 16th century Prague's royal palace, inhabited by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II--appeals to the imagination, but it's Black's golden pen, spinner of manuscripts-full of sumptuous prose, that seals the deal.
Although Rudolf is not the protagonist of this feast, he's in the argument--along with a host of other memorably drawn characters--to be the most engaging as described by the narrator, Christian Stern, an ambitious young scholar who arrives in Prague only to be drawn into a miasma of murder and deception.
Stern properly wanders into the intrigue on a drunken, snowy night, when he happens upon the body of a young woman not far from Rudolf's castle. Stern reports the crime to a castle guard and promptly encounters the first of Rudolf's treacherous agents, Felix Wenzel. This High Steward to His Majesty summarily hangs a version of authoritarian accusation on the scholar, whereupon Stern fetches up in prison with the attendant diseased foodstuffs and lack of amenities.
Wenzel, who later advises Stern that "I should have hanged you when I had the chance," merely ranks among the schemers in Rudolf's lair, and characters such as Chamberlain Philipp Lang and Caterina Sardo (Rudolf's wily in-house mistress) soon materialize to variously introduce Stern to His Majesty or make Stern a pawn in an unfathomable conspiracy.
Rudolf takes an interest in Stern because Stern is a natural philosopher, skeptical student of alchemy, and all around authority on mystical topics of the day. A sucker for unseen mysteries, Rudolf dreams that Stern came to Prague by design. He orders Stern to discover who murdered the young woman, a task that becomes both dangerous and pleasurable for the newly arrived scholar.
Stern compensates for youthful naivete with keen powers of observation, as shown in depictions of rakes associated with the astrologer Doctor Dee, the great (if bawdy) mathematician Johannes Kepler, a conniving dwarf name of Schenkel, sights and sounds of Prague, and assorted neighborhood cats. It's as though Caravaggio himself is on the lamb from Rome, thereby deigning to shine his signature light on the layers of corruption in this champagne and caviar of murder mysteries. But Renaissance painters get the fortnight off when Black takes out his singular pen.