by Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black is to John Banville what Robert Galbraith is to J.K. Rowling: the crime-fiction pseudonym of a better-known novelist. Set in 1599, Prague Nights is a stand-alone story that plays out 300 years before Black’s regular hero, Quirke, was even a glint in his parents’ eye. It does tread familiar Banville territory: early science – previous Banville novels include Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982) – and the Czech city (his Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City was published in 2003). Our narrator is Christian Stern, a budding alchemist who arrives at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, an advocate of emerging scientists such as John Dee and Edward Kelley, both of whom make cameo appearances. Stern is charged with killing Rudolph’s mistress, and later tasked with solving her murder by none other than the emperor himself. Black clearly relishes the petulant ruler, whose bohemian excesses include a debauched love of young boys and the occult arts. If a moody Prague and its conspiracies overshadow the plot, that is just fine. I learned a lot and had a ball while doing it.