Sixteenth century Germany was turbulent. It was the time of the Lutheran reformation, of the bitter Peasants’ War, bloodily suppressed, of the regime of the Godly Elect in Munster which went so horribly wrong and ended in scenes of brutality, a time of darkness and superstition, of religious frenzy and hideous cruelty.
Neil Mackay has fastened on the period as the subject of a historical crime novel, and for at least three-quarters of the book does it compellingly well. I have reservations about the last part where he goes over the top and credibility is lost, but even then there is acute philosophical argument about whether this world is ruled by a loving God or by the devil.
In time-honoured fashion, Mackay presents us with a manuscript, apparently the word of a Dutch university teacher in Glasgow several decades after the events narrated. He isn’t, it seems, Dutch but German, and as a young student in 1563 served as clerk and assistant to his university teacher, the distinguished lawyer Melchior Paulus. Paulus is charged with the investigation of a terrible case in the remote township of Bideburg.
The local landowner, Peter Stumpf, a veteran of the wars and an apparently happily married family man, has been apprehended in the act of murder and is held to be responsible for almost 70 killings; he is also accused of eating parts of his victims’ bodies. There is no doubt about his guilt, but the question is whether he is only a man or, as the townspeople believe, a werewolf. Paulus is a rationalist who doesn’t believe in werewolves or demonic possession, but he is accompanied by a Church lawyer, Fromme, who believes otherwise. If Stumpf is indeed a werewolf, then the case will come under ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and not only the killer but his wife and daughters will suffer the extreme penalty of the law.
Paulus is the young narrator’s hero, a learned and masterful man. He talks what will appear to readers to be sense, but he is also arrogant, passionate, quick-tempered and violent. His determination to see justice done extends beyond Stumpf’s case, for reasons that will become apparent, and he also hopes to save the killer’s wife and daughters, whose innocence he recognises. At first he seems to be carrying all before him. The question is whether in his intellectual arrogance he will overplay his hand and be outwitted by his ecclesiastical colleague-turned adversary.
The novel is written with assurance and authority. Time and place are evoked vividly and memorably. It is full of horrors, like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch or a Tarantino movie. It is certainly not for the squeamish, and the picture of mass hysteria is persuasive. It is a world where reason is dead, or sleeping. But, though there is little doubt which side the author, speaking through his young narrator, is on in this battle between rationality and superstition, Mackay is even-handed. The rational Paulus betrays himself by the violence with which he pursues his own idea of justice. A flashback to his childhood in the demented city of godly Munster may account for his growing conviction that this world may indeed have been abandoned by a god of love, even if such a deity existed. Whatever the reason, his arrogant single-mindedness threatens to lead to disaster, and the outcome is terrible, the accounts of killings and executions utterly repulsive.
Mackay is a wonderful storyteller and this is a remarkable novel which re-creates a dark period of history. What it lacks is economy. It is congested. There is too much action, too few pauses to build tension. Scenes are prolonged after their point has been made. What is missing, as in so many novels today, is any evidence of editorial influence or authorial self-criticism. If the text had been cut by a quarter, and some restraint had been exercised, a fine novel would have been greatly improved.