John Banville, who writes his crime fiction as Benjamin Black, gets a nod in the course of this salacious stand-alone novel of a young man’s dangerous visit to Prague. He calls it a historical fantasy; it is set in 1599. I’d say there were winks as well as nods to his devoted readers, but that the story is blighted by cliché piled upon ossuary. For example, Christian Stern is a callow, not very clever, youngish German from Regensburg, who has studied in Wurzburg (whence he fled) and now comes to visit Prague, where the ruler is mad, bad, and dangerous—but so is almost everybody else, including a Jewish convert, whose daughter is the first victim in the book. There’s an Italian mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph whose children include a werewolf-like murderer who bites his victims to death; his mother, the maitresse en titre, falls for Christian (in itself more than perplexing) and exhibits a repressed man’s idea of untamed sexuality: foreign women, famous for their voracity. This is an early ugly cliché, though the hanged man in a dark courtyard ought perhaps to be counted.
Christian also sleeps with an Italian novice he meets at the Pope’s envoy’s palace, not to mention (later) the English step-daughter of Dr Dee’s assistant, Kelley. The English Ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton seeks Kelley’s acquaintance, and addresses himself to Christian for aid, but doesn’t get it; indeed, when his request becomes known he gets out of town. Even Kepler gets a bad time from the author, who has used him before. As authors let their imaginations slip off the lead, fantasy often gets out of hand. This is mainly just disgusting, its misogyny constant, if ostensibly covered by Christian, who is the narrator. I believe I have not mentioned the dwarf who is Rudolph’s servant, jester, and gossip.
It is Christian’s name which makes him of interest at court, because it sounds like the answer to a long wait for a mysterious person who will arrive like a star sent by Christ. He doesn’t have a long time to spend in the firmament: picked up by soldiers as a murderer in the first few pages, but taken before one of the palace higher-ups, his life spared. Rudolph assigns him to the murder he did not commit, but discovered. He cannot solve it, of course, and he lends it little attention. The dead woman is the daughter of a the Jewish doctor already mentioned. She has been horribly killed; Rudolph is angry, as he has just made her his mistress. Her fiancé is also discovered murdered, having been tortured first (there are some quite vivid descriptions in the course of the book). But, mostly, Christian dallies in Prague, alternately drunk, terrified, sexually self- absorbed, as well as very stupid about surveillance in this gossipy city. He doesn’t arouse much sympathy, not even from himself. Since this is a first-person narration, it is obvious that he survives, fleeing Prague for a secret destination on a west coast somewhere in ‘the north’, at the limits of the world—because all the clues fell into place and his lap. Another wink for the reader, surely. With luck, we will not meet Christian Stern again.
Benjamin Black, Prague Nights (also titled Wolf on a String)