The Ludwig Conspiracy, by Oliver Pötzsch

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 3 September 2013.

17165903Ludwig II of Bavaria has always been a fascinating character, a historical figure who seems more fictional than real. Ludwig nearly bankrupted his kingdom building the castles of Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee, and Neuschwanstein. Then he died under mysterious circumstances after being declared insane. Oliver Pötzsch takes that history and runs with it in The Ludwig Conspiracy. In this novel, a mild-mannered antiquarian bookseller gets caught up in a mad quest to reclaim Ludwig’s legacy.

In the prologue, we meet a king who is determined to get a book from a professor–so determined that the king orders the poor professor’s torture and murder. But the professor left the book in a bookshop in Munich owned by Steven Lukas. Shortly after, a man visits Lukas and asks for the book. Before long, people are breaking into Lukas’ shop and framing him for not one, but two murders. Lukas’ only ally is an abrasive but entertaining art detective, Sara Lengfeld. The only way to clear Lukas’ name, Lengfeld says, to solve the mystery of the book. The book is written by the assistant to Ludwig II’s personal physician in shorthand, with even more cryptic (pun intended) notations scattered throughout.

Gratuitous picture of Schloß Neuschwanstein

As Lukas works his way through the diary, he and Sara race from one of Ludwig’s castles to another, following clues laid down 125 years previously by a doctor who was bound and determined to keep his king’s secrets. This might sound like The Da Vinci Code. I was reminded of that book more than once as I read The Ludwig Conspiracy. But Pötzsch is a much better writer than Dan Brown. He has a knack for giving the reader exposition and important background information without bogging down the pace or making all the characters sound like pedants. (There is one pedantic character, but he’s ridiculous enough that I didn’t mind. He was hugely entertaining.)

Meanwhile, Lukas and Lengfeld are chased by the mad king, the mad king’s agents, a secret society, and a green Bentley that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. I marveled at the way Pötzsch kept all those plot threads from snarling. His characters aren’t the usual suspects in a mystery/thriller like The Ludwig Conspiracy. The protagonist, Lukas, is a bit hapless in spite of his expertise. His ally Sara is a pain in the ass a lot of the time. (But she’s a fun pain in the ass.) The villain is not just a stock casting choice. I’ve always though that some of the best villains were the ones that were convinced they’re right. The villain in this book is certainly convinced of the rightness of their actions, with the added bonus of being totally bonkers to keep you from predicting their next move.

The historical fiction elements of this book were just icing on the cake for me. The passages from the doctor’s journal were very well written, detailed and–more importantly–believable. Even though I knew a bit about Ludwig’s history (as would anyone with access to Wikipedia and two minutes to spare), but I still felt suspense about the doctor’s attempts to save his king from being deposed. Pötzsch doesn’t go so far as to completely rewrite history, but there are elements on the historical side of this novel that you won’t find in Wikipedia.

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