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  • brilliantly entertaining historical crime fiction

    Death In Delft is the first book in the Master Mercurius Mysteries series by British author, Graham Brack. In the chill of a Dutch February, University of Leiden lecturer, Master Mercurius is sent to Delft by the Rector, at the request of the Mayor of Delft, who requires someone with “a quick wit, a knowledge of God’s law and abundant energy”. Not until he arrives does the cleric understand that he is investigating the abduction, over recent weeks, of three young girls, all eight or nine years old, one of whom appears to have been murdered. Once the basic facts are established, the sites of the abductions, and the grave of the dead girl, are visited. Mercurius is accommodated at the Inn and given free rein to interrogate and investigate. The late seventeenth century offers little technology to assist an investigator, but this is Delft, and Johannes Vermeer has obliged with some Scene-Of-Crime sketches, and likenesses of two of the girls from parental descriptions (who needs cameras or identikit?); when copies are needed to hand around, a talented woodcut artist is engaged. The body is examined and Reinier de Graaf offers an enlightening opinion on cause of death; later, Anton van Leeuwenhoek helpfully applies scientific method to underpin certain deductions; (might as well use the local talent….) Mercurius makes enquiries by day and in the evenings, dines with each of the town’s burghers. And within the week, he has indeed solved this puzzling case. Brack’s protagonist is an interesting and easily likeable character: Master Mercurius is clearly a good man, if not overly devout or pious: “I hesitate to claim any special holiness of my own, but fortunately I have been prevented from sin by an almost total lack of opportunities: I have no need of money, and women have always found me immensely resistible, so occasions for sin do not often come my way.” He describes himself as “neither fish nor fowl, a Catholic masquerading as a Protestant, concealing what should be open.” He also reveals a talent for the bluff. The story is told by a late-in-life Mercurius who is setting down certain life episodes as journal entries. Brack’s plot has enough twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing, and he evokes the era with ease. He seamlessly incorporates a wealth of interesting historical facts into the narrative, as well as a generous helping of (sometimes dark) humour. It seems that, for much of this tale, Graham Brack has tongue firmly planted in cheek. This is brilliantly entertaining historical crime fiction and it is to be hoped that he has many more doses of Master Mercurius up his sleeve!

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