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Review: Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black
Holt, 2017. 306 pp. $28

As the year 1599 draws to a close, an impoverished German scholar named Christian Stern has wangled an introduction to the Prague court of Rudolph II, king of Hungary and Bohemia, archduke of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor. Called eccentric by some, mad by others — in whispers, of course — Rudolph shows more interest in magic and alchemy than in governing. Christian has read widely in the occult arts and considers them hogwash, but he’s willing to play the happy acolyte to ingratiate himself with His Majesty in hopes of patronage for natural philosophy—science–like the emperor’s other hirelings, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1591 painting of Rudolf II as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, growth, plants, and fruit. The emperor liked the portrayal (courtesy Skokloster Castle, Sweden, via Wikimedia Commons)

The chestnut about being careful what you wish for applies here. No sooner has Christian entered Prague than he stumbles across a corpse of a young woman dressed in a velvet gown, wearing a gold medallion around her neck. Robbery can’t be the motive, and her attire suggests she’s well born. But when he brings the death to official attention, to his surprise, he’s beaten and imprisoned for the crime:

Bells in countless churches were tolling the hour; it seemed to me I had never in my life heard so bleak and comfortless a sound. The thought came slithering into my defenseless consciousness that I might never be released from this foul dungeon, unless it was to be taken out on a freezing midwinter morning much like this one and marched to some grimy corner of the castle keep and made to kneel there with my neck on the block, where my last sight of this world would be that of the hooded headsman testing the edge of his blade with a thick thumb.

Luckily, Rudolph smiles on Christian, and he’s released, but not to serve justice or kindness or logic. Rather, the emperor believes in a prophecy that a “new star,” a sign of good fortune, will cross the firmament. Who better than someone named Christian Stern (Stern means “star” in German) to represent these glad tidings? And there could be no better way to prove his worth than to solve the murder; the victim was the court physician’s daughter, one of Rudolph’s mistresses. Besides, the emperor can’t trust anybody else. Christian implicitly understands that the killing has immense political implications, though, as a newcomer, he has no way to know where they lead.

“To the gallows,” replies just about everyone he talks to, most of whom make no secret of their desire to see him swing. Christian can never tell whether their animosity results from his exceedingly rapid rise, how they perceive their self-interest, plain viciousness, or a combination of all three. All he can see is that he’s stumbled into a power struggle between Felix Wenzel, His Majesty’s high steward and the official who had him arrested, and Philipp Lang, the subtle, devious high chamberlain. Allying himself to either may well be fatal, but the day will come when Christian must choose sides. His predicament causes frank amusement among the courtiers, spiced by his amorous adventures, which, though risky, are common knowledge. How pleasant to be the source of merriment.

Black, a pseudonym for John Banville, the famous novelist, has told a gripping story whose tension never flags, and which has the ring of literary and historical truth, even though he made most of it up. He’s captured the timeless tale of a young man on the make, and this one’s so dazzled by the money, finery, and sexual favors on offer that he’s distracted from his task to solve the murder, a loss of focus that seems true to life. Christian has some leeway in that Rudolf’s easily distracted too, but that won’t last forever, and the mercurial emperor’s whims must be honored. Black has also re-created Prague in all its filth, lice, mud, grandeur, cruelty, and hardship, which puts you in the narrative and doesn’t let go.

The title comes from a remark by Kepler, who appears in a marvelous cameo, full of braggadocio and insight. He explains to Christian that if you bow a violin in precisely the wrong way — a remote likelihood for a skilled musician, yet still possible — you produce a sound like a wolf. What a perfect metaphor for Christian’s situation, potentially sublime yet fated to evoke a terrifying threat with only the slightest misstep. Black never lets his protagonist — or the reader — forget that.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.