Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2017.
Benjamin Black is the pseudonym Irish writer John Banville uses when he pens crime novels (though he has abandoned that recently with the publication of his most recent cosy crime novels, Snow and April in Spain).
But Prague Nights, set in 1599, is not so much a crime novel but a political intrigue set in the shadowy world of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the eccentric Rudolf II.
Atmospheric murder mystery
This deeply atmospheric tale begins with the narrator, Christian Stern, a 25-year-old doctor and travelling scholar from Bavaria, arriving in Prague one snowy evening. He is drunk and a bit lost when he stumbles upon the body of a young woman lying in the shadow of the castle wall. She’s wearing a glamourous velvet gown with a large gold medallion around her neck, suggesting she comes from wealth, and her throat has been slashed.
He reports her death to the nearest sentry guards and is immediately assumed to be the culprit. He’s thrown into prison and looks set to be put to death for a crime he did not commit. But fate intervenes in the form of His Majesty who has had a dream about a saviour arriving from the west.
‘From your name—Christian Stern—it seems that you must be that God-sent star, for how else would we interpret such a happy confluence, hmm?’
He is told that the woman, Magdalena Kroll, is the daughter of the Emperor’s doctor and is asked to investigate the crime. It is during his enquiries that he discovers she was also the Emperor’s secret lover.
As Stern moves within the court’s circles, looking for motives and trying to determine how he should proceed, he is bewitched by Caterina Sardo — “His Majesty’s concubine and mother of his ill-gotten bastards” — and becomes her lover. This unknowingly puts him in a compromised position, for in Rudolf II’s world it’s difficult to know who to trust and who to avoid. There’s a power struggle going on and Stern risks being caught in the middle.
Later, when a second body — a man believed to have been romantically involved with Magdalena — is found floating in the river, with his eyes gouged out and terrible rope burns on his neck, it appears that someone might have taken the law into their own hands. Stern soon realises his investigation is at risk of being derailed because too many powerful people have a stakehold in the outcome. What he does next could put his own life in grave danger.
Not a conventional crime tale
Prague Nights isn’t a conventional crime story. There’s not much of a plot other than to follow one hapless naive man’s attempt to find out how Magdalena was murdered.
I’d argue this story is actually historical fiction, perhaps even literary fiction, because it is character-led, features a wonderfully evocative setting and the dense, detailed prose is ripe with Banville-esque descriptions (he loves to tell us about the clothes people are wearing in rich, filmic detail, for instance), witty asides, metaphors and similes:
I felt, when he held me in his grip like this, that we were a pair of skaters halted motionless upon the thinnest of ice, our skates about to buckle beneath us, or the ice to crack, or one of us to fall and bring the other down with him.
What makes the story compelling is not so much discovering who murdered Magdalena but in wondering whether Stern is going to get away with his role in the Emperor’s inner circle given that he is sleeping with the Emperor’s mistress. There’s a whole series of untrustworthy characters with whom he has to deal, each one with an agenda to grind and each with the ability to thwart his investigation and expose his affair, providing a sinister, shadowy feel to the story.
This is an intriguing novel. It’s not fast-paced, so don’t expect a page-turner. Instead, this is a story to linger over, to soak up the language and the 16th Century Bohemian setting, and to experience the dangers that confront the main characer on almost every page.