I have written five novels featuring an apothecary from Reval as a detective in a medieval world and I have countless times been asked – why an apothecary? Why not a judge or councilman or canonical clerk? The answer is very simple – an apothecary is a much more interesting character, and especially an apothecary in the city of Reval.
Hanseatic Reval was important and one of largest cities in Livonia (present day Estonia and Latvia). Livonia had no king, it was ruled by the Teutonic knights and bishops and was therefore more like a Christian church state. We have evidence that the city had an apothecary’s shop at least from 1422. An apothecary in Reval was in fact a civil servant, and had good connections to the magistrate. So it was quite probable that he might have been called up when some curious cases emerged that demanded an apothecary’s expertise.
An apothecary at that time might have possessed many qualities which would make him a good detective. He was a learned man and read many books, knew Latin, studied medicine, anatomy. Some widely used recipes and remedies consisted of human body parts. The apothecary’s job was to harvest these organs from the bodies. So he must have had some knowledge of surgery and of wounds. But more importantly – apothecaries knew poisons. They mixed rat poisons, they had arsenic, they studied pharmacology. So if anyone in the city of Reval would have known the difference between long term and acute arsenic poisoning, it would been an apothecary.
An apothecary’s shop at the time was a little like a tavern or pub and convenience store. One could purchase different kinds of commodities from the apothecary, and they sold wine and other drinks. Apothecaries must have been familiar with townspeoples’ diseases and worries; they overheard all sorts of gossip. They knew people’s little secrets. Also they were businessmen – they had to be persuasive, good PR-people. They had to have a way with people; they needed to be good socialisers.
Their social status in the city’s hierarchy was pretty high and decent. Not eligible to be elected to the council and serve as magistrate, they were still considered as a middle strata between ordinary artisans and rich merchants. They had access to the city elite and were invited to the guild’s main festivities.
So all things considered, an apothecary would make excellent detective material.
Another issue was criminal procedure at that time. Would the court have listened to the testimonies of an apothecary if he was not an eyewitness of the crime? What passed as evidence in the court? Well, the reader would find in the series that Melchior could put up a solid case even without fingerprints and DNA. Many things would serve as clues – interpretation of the interrupted chess game, avpassage from the writings of Saint Augustine, a curious coin from the charity box or growing mold on the face of the exhumed body…
Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church, by Indrek Hargla, the first Estonian crime novel ever to be published in English, is out now, published by Peter Owen price £9.99 paperback