Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street by Indrek Hargla and Christopher Moseley (translator)
|Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street by Indrek Hargla and Christopher Moseley (translator)|
|Category: Crime (Historical)|
|Reviewer: JY Saville|
|Summary: This is a tight, gripping medieval murder mystery with a supernatural chill. Spot on if you enjoyed Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: April 2016|
|Publisher: Peter Owen Publishers|
In fifteenth century Tallinn religion and superstition sit side by side. In the midst of this is scientifically-minded apothecary Melchior Wakenstede, known for his curiosity, logical thinking, and ability to solve murders. There are rumours of a ghost a few doors down from Melchior on Rataskaevu Street, though he's not as ready to believe in it as some of his neighbours. When several people die after saying they'd seen the ghost, Melchior can't resist looking for the connection between them and trying to discover the truth behind the tales.
Indrek Hargla is a bestselling crime and speculative fiction author in Estonia, and from this novel it's not hard to see why he's so popular. So far only his first two Apothecary Melchior novels have been translated into English, though there are a few more available in Estonian so presumably they'll follow eventually. Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street introduces the doubly unfamiliar setting of medieval Tallinn (I think this is the first novel I've read that's set in Estonia) with power divided between Teutonic Knights, Dominican monks, and traders from all across Europe. Hargla manages the most wonderful evocation of time and place, like Tracy Chevalier does in Girl With a Pearl Earring. He conjures sounds and scents as well as sights.
Though Melchior uses logic, and various investigative methods that Sherlock Holmes would have been happy with, it's always clear that we are in a medieval city. The dirt and cruelty, traditions and pervasive religion are apparent throughout, and Melchior never seems out of place or heretical in the way he goes about his detective work. There's also a reasonably plausible explanation for why the town apothecary might solve crimes, and the way he comes into contact with so many people via his shop means he can pick up information relatively easily.
There is a theme throughout the book of people atoning for sins, real or imagined, voluntarily or otherwise, from Melchior himself searching for the cure for an intergenerational curse, to a wealthy merchant endowing a new convent nearby. There's also a bit of a theme of vengeance, but is it the dead taking revenge on the living, or something nastier and all too human?
Crime fiction is often a way in to the literature of different cultures, I find, and this novel sparked an interest in Tallinn and its history. Who were the Order (the local Knights), and why is Melchior's wife referred to as 'non-German' as if German is the default, despite being nowhere near Germany? If I was being really picky about the book I'd have said there should have been a map of the old town or principal locations as I found it hard to get my bearings sometimes when it seemed like the proximity of some events might be important. However, looking Tallinn up on an online map just in case any of the streets or landmarks were real, I was delighted to find that it showed the old town boundary, and some of the streets and churches from the novel do exist even now.
I often waver on what rating to give a book but this was an immediate unquestionable 5-star. It was complex, well-paced, and tense, full of twists. It was gripping and kept me guessing, and eager to know what was really going on. Although it is the second in the series I didn't feel like I'd missed anything by starting there. Melchior himself seemed quite real and human, and I would certainly read the rest.
In some ways this novel put me in mind of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and Cadfael fans might also enjoy it. If you're not in the mood for a monk as the main character, try Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake) by C J Sansom in which sixteenth century lawyer Matthew Shardlake is caught up in the first of his dangerous adventures.
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