Apothecary Melchior & The Mystery Of St Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla

St Olaf's ChurchTallinn in the fifteenth century is a strange place, especially for the British reader. A merchant town, part of the Hanseatic League, on the edge of the Christian world and in the shadow of Toompea Castle and St Olaf’s Church, the tallest building in the world (although not at that point in time- according to the mighty Wikipedia, Lincoln Cathedral was one metre taller).

Commander Henning Von Clingenstain, a Teutonic Knight is visiting the castle, and, after a while annoying a number of the locals, is careless enough to get himself killed. Well, not just killed – dismembered, decapitated and his head being stuck on a spike. It falls to Melchior Wakenstede, the town apothecary, to ferret out the truth – but the ruthless killer may strike again at any moment…

Indrek Hargla has been writing books since 2001 but in 2010 turned his hand to detective fiction in the form of the Apothecary Melchior mysteries. There are five to date, of which two have been translated into English by Adam Cullen and published by Peter Owen Publishers. And as you might expect from translated fiction, things don’t quite run as you might expect.

First off, there’s a massive spoiler that I can’t really avoid – because it’s in the title. The relevance of St Olaf’s Church – indeed, the fact that the church has anything to do with the plot – is revealed quite late in the day, so highlighting it’s importance in the title is very strange.

Secondly, the pacing. Between the first two deaths, the book drags. Everything moves along nicely for a while, but then nothing much happens until the second murder, which happens quite late in the narrative. At that point, things absolutely zip along, with the gathering of suspects having accusations ricocheting about everywhere. A more even progression might have worked better for me.

But if you can put that to one side, there are some clever ideas here. The motive is genuinely original and genuinely medieval, the historical picture of Tallinn is detailed and vivid (although a hint for the future – put the map of the town in the front of the book, not the back) and Melchior is an original lead. Although the bits about his family curse – which sounds like epilepsy or something similar – are strange, especially the cure for a night-time fit. Not going to say what it is, but it’s very odd.

So, not a perfect book – the pacing really was an issue for me – but if you fancy something new in the genre, then this is definitely worth a look.

Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

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