Wolf on a String: A Novel, by Benjamin Black
@@@@ (4 out of 4)
Except for the title, which I found unfathomable, I enjoyed this novel immensely. The author, Irish writer and Booker-Prize-winner John Banville, writes murder mysteries under the pen name Benjamin Black. Wolf on a String is indeed a mystery, and a puzzling one at that, though it’s more intriguing as historical fiction. It’s the first of his novels I’ve read in that genre, but by no means the first he’s written. In fact, the book’s 16th-Century setting in Prague is familiar territory for Banville. He wrote at least four previous novels grounded there, including the Revolutions Trilogy about scientists Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.
The action in Wolf on a String unfolds during December 1599 and January 1600. The narrator, Christian Stern, relates the tale in old age, many years later. As a young man, Stern had traveled from his hometown in Bavaria after leaving his father’s funeral. He has come to Prague, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, in hopes of gaining a position as an adviser to the Emperor Rudolf II. Unfortunately, on the very day of his arrival in Prague, Stern stumbles (drunk) upon the corpse of a young woman in a narrow street under the shadow of the imperial castle.
As Black writes in opening the novel, “Few now recall that it was I who discovered the corpse of Dr. Kroll’s misfortunate daughter thrown upon the snow that night in Golden Lane. The fickle muse of history has all but erased the name of Christian Stern from her timeless pages, yet often I have had cause to think how much better it would have been for me had it never been written there in the first place. I was to soar high, on gorgeous plumage, but in the end fell back to earth, with wings ablaze.”
Black could hardly have picked a more interesting time and place to set his novel. Rudolf II was moody, unpredictable, indifferent to rule, and probably insane. He was surrounded by sycophants and cunning criminals who were at war with each other for the emperor’s favor. Many historians credit Rudolf’s misrule as having paved the way for the tragic Thirty Years War (1618-48) in which Protestants and Catholics murdered one another on battlefields and in towns all across the European continent. However, Rudolf’s obsession with alchemy and the occult arts led him to attract many men to his court who would later prove to play major roles in advancing the scientific revolution. Among them were the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, both of whom make cameo appearances in the novel.
Christian’s misfortune is to be drawn into the treacherous intrigue in the imperial court and forced to deal with the two most senior officials in the Holy Roman Empire as well as the empress and the court physician, Dr. Kroll. All four have interests that conflict with each other’s—and with the emperor’s. When Rudolf impulsively charges Christian with responsibility for discovering who murdered the young woman, he finds himself at the mercy of all four. This is not a game that Christian can win.
Now about that title. Despite Black’s explanation midway through the novel, I couldn’t figure it out. So I looked the phrase “wolf on a string” up on Wikipedia. Here’s what I found: “A wolf tone, or simply a ‘wolf,’ is produced when a played note matches the natural resonating frequency of the body of a musical instrument, producing a sustaining sympathetic artificial overtone that amplifies and expands the frequencies of the original note, frequently accompanied by an oscillating beating (due to the uneven frequencies between the natural note and artificial overtone) which may be likened to the howling of the animal. A similar phenomenon is the beating produced by a wolf interval, which is usually the interval between E♭ and G♯ of the various non-circulating temperaments.” Got it? Not I. I’m more confused than ever.
Banville writes general fiction under his own name and mysteries under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Earlier, under that name, he wrote a series of seven novels set in 1950s Dublin that feature the curious coroner, Dr. Quirke, who finds himself embroiled in knotty investigations of crime along with his collaborator, Inspector Hackett. I’ve posted reviews of all seven books on this blog.
For reviews of three of the novels in the Dr. Quirke series, check out 1950s Dublin: murder and the Church, Dublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?, and A murder mystery from the pen of a master stylist.