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Death and the Devil

by Frank Schatzing

      A friend recently asked me what I look for in a book. Death and the Devil is a tale that forced me to really think about that, because I shouldn't have liked it for a couple of reasons. It's a thickish doorstop of a book, which I don't usually have the patience for. Also, I'm a hardliner fan of historical mysteries and believe that historical accuracy is essential or else it's clearly some other sort of story. This book had an absolute thud of an anachronism within the first few pages: city gates closing at 10 PM on the dot - on the dot is a clockface based reference supposedly being used in a time when clocks were rare and inaccurate, and city gates typically closed around dusk. But I did enjoy it, very much, and despite its length, gulped it down in practically one extended sitting.

So what do I look for? Character is a big thing, and the hero of this tale is an engaging young rascal of a thief named Jacob the Fox (for his fiery red hair). He's intelligent, appealing, good company and highly entertaining to follow around. Following him introduces you to other interesting people, friend and foe. You won't like them all, but you'll definitely care what happens to them. Following Jacob also keeps you on the run - this may be a big, thick book, but the story moves. It also, despite more than one example of anachronistic writing (about which there's the open question of how much is original, how much is the translator), is a tale with a strong sense of place. You're there with Jacob, then, in that particular orchard tree, watching that particular murder take place, as immediately as you are running fearfully through those particular streets and braving the guards in this particular palace to prevent another murder. The combination makes for some great entertainment.

The story opens with conspirators meeting, and Jacob running away from the butcher - from whom he's just stolen some sausages - and straight into the washing of a beautiful young clothes dyer. When he subsequently witnesses the disguised murder of Gerhard Morart, architect of Cologne Cathedral (this bit is based on real life events), then finds the murdered bodies of his best friend and his whore lover as the killer closes in on him, it seems that the dyer Richmodis is the only one who can help Jacob hide. Richmodis takes him to her father and philosophizing uncle, who convince Jacob that the only way he'll survive is to switch to the attack and bring the murderer to justice. Their investigational chase unfolds in increasing danger against a background of conflicts, treachery and politics both public and private, along with comedy, romance and wit, ultimately ending where it began - with a death in the cathedral close. Settle back and enjoy the ride. Recommended.

The Book

William Morrow / A Division of Harper Collins
August 2007
0061349488 / 978-0061349485
Historical Mystery [Cologne, Germany 1260]
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The Reviewer

Kim Malo
Reviewed 2008
© 2008