Wolf on a String by Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black’s “historical fantasy…(shows that) real life at the court of Rudolf II was entirely phantasmagorical.” Wolf on a String is a brooding historical noir that imagines the sordid underbelly of Rudolf’s court at the end of the 17th Century. It comprises sacred and profane love, murder, palace intrigue, and spycraft while the rise of Protestantism conflicts with Catholicism.
Narrator Christian Stern recollects events surrounding 1600 some thirty years later as the events of the 30 Years War are ending. Here lies a clue that the timeline of events is seriously bent to fit the needs of the plot, as is so often the case in “historical fiction.”
Stern, the bastard of a high-ranking bishop, has left home and come to Prague hoping to set his own course in life. Arriving in late December, he finds the night dark, the snow heavy, the streets nearly deserted, and a penetrating mist hanging over the town. And, drunken though he is, he finds the body of a young woman, her throat slashed. Arrested for the murder and thrown into prison, he is rescued by a high official because the Emperor believed that Stern is his star arrived from the west. “I had been in the city hardly one full day and already I had been apprehended and accused of murder, threatened with the rack, then thrown into jail, then suddenly released and set up in a house on my own, without my even asking for it….” All this because the Emperor said, “We had a dream of you….the star that would come from the west, the star sent by our Saviour as a sign to us.”
Stern later explains “I felt, in my glooms, like a sacrifice preparing itself for slaughter.” He realized “how uncourtly court life often was.” At dinner, they “hooted and howled like a pack of hunting dogs, and threw gnawed bones and crumbs of bread at each other” as fights broke out.
Time seems out of joint in a world that bends to the mystic in the form of alchemy. The girl is dead, but who is she? Why is Stern’s arrival so quickly heralded? The practice of alchemy and magic and the layers of court intrigue reveal that nothing is as it seems to be. The “grandeur and opulence of a great metropolis…sat upon a stew of squalor, vice, and violence.”
The plot unfolds piece by piece with little hint as to who the actual murderer might be, unless one knows the history of Rudolf II and his family. In that case, the introduction of one character solves more than one murder long before the plot reveals the answer. There are very real places and people here, although historical personas are sometimes bent to fit the needs of the story. Prague Castle and Golden Lane are quite real and worth visiting. Rudolf II is exposed in his twisted being, his search for the secret to alchemy, and his addiction to licentious behavior. His mistress Catherina Strada (named Caterina Sardo here) was the mother of his bastard Don Giulio. A character says that “She has not children, but wolf cubs.” The English Ambassador Sir Henry Wotton, who famously said an ambassador is an “honest man sent abroad to lie for his country” makes an appearance. John Dee and other alchemists make small but vital cameos.
Wolf on a String was originally published in Europe in 2017 as Prague Nights. Benjamin Black is, of course, the pen name of John Banville. Winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize and the 2011 Franz Kafka Prize, Banville is the author of the series of Quirke novels, and The Black-Eyed Blonde, a Philip Marlowe novel.