Benjamin Black’s addictive new thriller re-creates an irresistible world of sex and sorcery in 16th century Prague
It’s a snowy December 1599 in Prague, then the capital of the Habsburg Empire, and the emperor’s mistress has had her throat brutally slashed open. A naïve young scholar, new in the city but with delusions of grandeur, has been tasked to solve the murder, while corrupt courtiers are circling like sharks. Will he unravel the mystery before his own neck is hoisted on the gallows?
Prague Nights by Benjamin Black is a page-turning romp – a mixture of sex, sedition, scheming and alleged sorcery in a lavish court, like binge watching Game of Thrones without the white walkers. And, since Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville, it’s also well crafted and atmospheric; a literary heavyweight let off the leash to have fun amid the alchemists, dandies and drunks of Rudolf II’s court.
The narrator and main protagonist is Christian Stern, an archbishop’s bastard with a tough upbringing but a good education, who hopes to find a position “among the scores of learned men who labored at His Majesty’s pleasure.” Rudolf is known to be capricious, moody and reclusive but also enthusiastically open-minded and a patron of the bookish seekers of the Age of Discovery.
Arriving “on a nag” in the frostbound city, the cash-strapped Stern adopts a tactic that any modern student on their first trip to Prague will recognize: He gets recklessly drunk. Staggering in the moonlight under the high walls of Hradčany Castle, he stumbles upon the corpseof a beautiful young woman. It’s Magdalena Kroll, the emperor’s latest “little plaything.” He has bumbled into a state embarrassment.
Stern soon finds himself caught between two bitter rivals sparring for the emperor’s favor: the High Steward, Felix Wenzel, an earnest dandy; and the Chamberlain Philipp Lang, a self-made charmer who seems as trustworthy as a warm spell in February. It’s through Lang that Stern (German for “star”) is brought before the frankly dotty emperor who, having dreamed of a star coming from the West, now sees the student as a “good omen.”
This stroke of luck elevates Stern from the dungeon to the inner circles of an eccentric court. Freed from suspicion, he is promoted to unofficial investigator and tasked with finding the murderer. Stern, however, is no Central European Poirot. He’s afflicted with all the foibles that have plagued male students over the ages – namely overgenerous self-confidence and an inability to stay sober or keep his pants above his ankles.
While Stern frets and fornicates his way through court intrigues, a colorful cast of side characters moves the plot along, which revolves around a potential spy scandal and a missing strongbox that belonged to the victim’s father, who was Rudolf’s personal doctor. We meet a charismatically dyspeptic dwarf called Jeppe Schenkel (a survivor from John Banville’s 1981 book Kepler: A Novel) and the disgraced Irish wizard Edward Kelley, one of many historical characters.
Despite the farcical ineffectiveness of its main character, the novel works, thanks to the narration. Retold by a much older and more self-aware Stern, he looks back wistfully after decades that have “engulfed the world in slaughter, fire and ruin.” The court battles that so perplexed the young protagonist are partly about vanity but also bear the seeds of conflicts between tolerance and fanaticism that will soon erupt into the Catholic-Protestant bloodbath of the Thirty Years War.
Fondly remembered by his sadder-but-wiser later self, the young student is a fool and the emperor is a booby. After all the carnage that would follow, the frozen winter of 1599 seems as innocent and alluring as the golden summer of 1913.
Viking June, 2017, pp 336