Prague Nights by Benjamin Black

I had never heard of Benjamin Black until I spotted his new novel available on NetGalley, but I quickly discovered that it is a pseudonym of the Irish author better known as John Banville. Not having read anything by Banville either, I had no idea what to expect from Prague Nights, but the title was enough to make me interested in reading it (note: the US title is Wolf on a String) – Prague is a beautiful city and one I would recommend visiting, if you haven’t already. To experience Prague as it is in this novel, however, you would need a time machine as the action takes place more than four hundred years ago, at the end of the sixteenth century.

It’s 1599 and Christian Stern, a young doctor from Regensburg, has just arrived in Prague. On his first night in the city he stumbles across the dead body of a young woman half buried in snow. He reports his discovery and expects that to be the end of the matter, so he is shocked when he is accused of killing the girl himself. Her identity is given as Magdalena Kroll, mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and daughter of his ‘chief wizard’ Ulrich Kroll. Stern knows he is in serious trouble, but fortunately for him, the emperor – a superstitious man with a strong belief in the occult – believes him to be a messenger whose arrival in Prague had been predicted in a prophecy.

Freed of suspicion now, Stern is given the task of discovering who really did kill Magdalena Kroll. It is a mission which will bring him into conflict with some of the most powerful men in Prague, embroil him in a love affair with another of the emperor’s mistresses, Caterina Sardo, and send him to the town of Most in search of the English occultist Edward Kelley, who it is believed may hold the key to the mystery.

Prague Nights is one of those books that sounds as though it should be much better than it actually is. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it at all, because there were some aspects that I enjoyed, which I’ll return to shortly, but it definitely wasn’t the atmospheric, exciting historical mystery novel I had hoped it would be. I was disappointed that it wasn’t really much of a mystery; yes, there is a murder at the beginning and we find out who was responsible for it at the end, but in between, our narrator, Christian Stern, makes very little effort to actually investigate. Things happen around him but he takes no active part and by the time I reached the end of the book, I found that I no longer really cared how Magdalena Kroll had died and why.

The writing style is descriptive and detailed with a formal feel which suits the time period and the descriptions of Prague’s buildings, bridges and cobbled streets and squares are nicely done:

I had often tried to imagine Prague and its glories, but the reality of it was grander and more gracious than anything I could have dreamed of. Past the castle, we stopped on the height there to look out over the city. The sky was white and the air was draped with a freezing mist, pierced by many spires, all of them appearing black in that pervasive icy miasma. Despite the wintry murk, I could see the river and its bridges and, beyond, the clock tower in the Old Town Square.

This wasn’t enough to make me love the book, however. To be able to love a book I need to at least feel something for the characters and unfortunately I felt very little for Christian Stern or any of the other people who play a part in the novel. That’s particularly frustrating because, in real life, Rudolf II and the members of his court sound fascinating, especially his son, Don Julius Caesar. In his author’s note, Benjamin Black talks about the historical figures on which his characters are based, explaining where he sticks to factual information and where he uses his imagination. As I previously knew nothing about 16th century Prague or Rudolf’s court, it was good to have the opportunity to learn something new, even if the story itself didn’t really succeed in holding my attention.

Have you read anything by Benjamin Black/John Banville? And do you have any other books set in Prague to recommend?

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17 thoughts on “Prague Nights by Benjamin Black

  1. FictionFan says:

    I’v read one novel by John Banville, The Blue Guitar, which I loved. And one crime novel by Benjamin Black, which I didn’t! I think his style is better suited to ‘literary’ writing, though I believe his Benjamin Black books are very popular.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think I would want to read any more Benjamin Black books, but maybe I should try The Blue Guitar. I can see how his writing style might work better with a different type of book.

  2. cirtnecce says:

    I have not read either John Banville or Benjamin Black books! The premises of this book sounded really good, and I do feel disappointed that it failed to live upto the expectation! I do increasingly feel that many books, have an really interesting historical setting, but the actual plot leaves much to be desired. It seems like the historical background should carry the day, but the genre is called historical fiction and fiction is equally important in this equation as history!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it was disappointing because it could have been such a good book. The setting and time period were fascinating, but the characters and plot definitely didn’t live up to expectations. I agree that some books just don’t get the balance right between history and fiction!

  3. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I’ve read one book by John Banville, The Sea, which I enjoyed – but it was years ago and I don’t remember much about it. I’ve read Vengeance by Benjamin Black, number five in Black’s Quirke Mysteries series. I thought it was more of a character study than a murder mystery and the mystery was not complex or difficult to solve. I liked it and noted I wanted to read more in the series – but haven’t! I liked his style of writing – clear and concise, with a good sense of time and place.

    I’m sorry Prague Nights didn’t hold your interest but at least it gave you some insight into Prague’s history.

    • Helen says:

      I did like his writing style and the sense of time and place he creates, but I still felt there was something missing from this book. Maybe I would have preferred one of the Quirke mysteries – it sounds as though the characterisation is stronger in those. At least, as you say, I’ve gained some insight into the history of Prague and Rudolf II’s court.

    • Helen says:

      Sorry you didn’t enjoy The Sea – it has never sounded very appealing to me either. I think Banville/Black is probably just not my type of author.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    I have always meant to read Banville but haven’t yet. I get the idea he is very literary and very sad. I read the first Black, Christine Falls, and it was ok but Tana French has it all over Banville as an Irish mystery writer. These are my humble opinions.

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t very impressed with this book as a mystery, but I did like the writing – maybe his style is better suited to the Banville books than the Black ones.

  5. beckylindroos says:

    I’ve read several by Banville and a couple by Black and I agree with Fiction Fan above. I’m very fond of Banville but Black is … well … he gets a little literary for what I really want in a crime novel or thriller – all the lovely words slow the pace down. I’m interested in Prague Nights / Wolf on a String – though. I enjoy that setting from several other books – The Prague Cemetery (Umberto Eco), HHhH (Laurent Binet), Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon) so I might try it.

    • Helen says:

      Banville’s books have never really appealed to me, but maybe I should try one just to see what I think. I’m not sure whether I’ve read any other books set in Prague – I’ll have to look out for the three you’ve mentioned.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it if you do try it! It would be interesting for you to be able to compare his books written under the Black name with the Banville ones.

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