The Wolf Trial, by Neil Mackay

In 1563, Peter Strumpf (also spelled Stumpp) was executed for killing approximately 70 people. This would have been remarkable enough except for one other detail: Strumpf was believed to be a werewolf. How else to explain his prolific and extremely violent crimes? The Wolf Trial, by Neil Mackay, tells the story of Peter Strumpf through the eyes of William Lessinger, who assisted during Strumpf’s trial. The Wolf Trial is a story about when justice has to do battle with revenge in an age when executions could be day-long tortures.

William Lessinger tells us his story decades later, looking back on a case that still haunts him. William (known as Willie) accompanied his professor, Paulus Melchior, when Paulus was summoned to Bideburg to adjudicate the case of the Werewolf of Bideburg. Paulus had a reputation for fairness and thoroughness, though he often thwarted local “justice” when things threatened to get out of hand. Because there might be a supernatural element to the case, Paulus and Willie are also accompanied by Fromme, a Roman Catholic priest.

There is no question the Peter Strumpf is guilty; Strumpf confessed, both under torture and not. The question is whether he should be tried as a man and murderer or if he should be tried and executed as an agent of the devil. Fromme and the people of Bideburg are all for executing Strumpf as a werewolf. Strumpf has terrorized the town for decades. There are even special bells placed around the town that are only to be rung in the event of a wolf attack. Strumpf and his family are also the richest people in Bideburg. If he is found to be in league with the devil, all his goods and properties are forfeit to the town.

Willie shows us the conflict between Paulus and Fromme and the townspeople. Paulus does not believe in the supernatural. Fromme and the townspeople very much do. If they are allowed to break Strumpf (literally, on a wheel), they believe justice will be served and life will be able to go back to normal. Paulus has the upperhand for a while, but there is too much bad feeling for him to retain it for long.

The Wolf Trial centers on the Strumpf case, but Willie often steps back to tell us more about the time and the place. Germany in 1563 was only just starting to recover from years of religious warfare and the Peasants’ War. Paulus Melchior caught the brunt of it as a child, surviving the Münster Rebellion and the subsequent siege. Willie spares us none of the shocking details of the aftermath. It’s no surprise, then, that Paulus does everything he can to keep things secular in Bideburg.

Once events starts to spin out of control and the violence escalates, The Wolf Trial becomes terrifying and sickening. The fact that the novel is based on a real story makes it even worse. I’ve seen woodcuts of executions of the time, but they cannot convey the reality of what angry, frightened people can do to each other. This book is not for readers with delicate stomachs.

I stuck with the book because Mackay, through his narrator, draws amazing portraits of people. Even though I could never do what some of these people do, I felt I could understand their motivations. I’ve also never read a book set in this place and time, so I very much wanted to know more. I spent a lot of time hopping back and forth between the book and Wikipedia to learn more about the names that Willie dropped. Most of all, I was fascinated by the tension between achieving justice and committing revenge. Justice is a high ideal to strive for and our emotions can, if we let them, cause us to fall short. With a case like Strumpf’s, is it even possible to heal a community and give the murderer a sentence that gives his victims’ justice?

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 April 2016.

How to Be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman

A few of my friends and I have been waiting impatiently for How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, by Ruth Goodman, for months. I was so eager to devour the book’s contents when I got my hands on it that I stayed up far too late on Sunday night that I’m still paying for it. It was worth it. I now know what swashbuckling really means.

How to Be a Tudor follows the same pattern set by How to Be a VictorianGoodman spent time living an approximation of life in sixteenth century England—wearing the clothes, cooking on open hearths, sleeping on rushes, even cleaning her teeth with lampblack. Goodman takes us through the day, blending firsthand knowledge with years of research.

Most of How to Be a Tudor is taken up with dispelling myths. The further back we go—or so I learned in history classes—the smellier people were. Goodman says this is not so. She spent months “in character,” following Tudor hygiene practices. This meant that she changed her linen shift once a week and washed down with water and a linen cloth every night. No deodorant. No showers. And she did not reek! A colleague who took showered everyday but did not change his garb as frequently apparently developed quite a pong. (Goodman likes the word “pong.” So do I.) She also informs us that, while people did drink a lot of beer and ale, it was less alcoholic than later brews. The biggest revelation was how much people spent just on food: 80% of their income!

I continue to be amazed at how much more sense the literature of the period makes now that I know more about the life of the writers and their audiences. Goodman noticed this, too. At one point, she mentions that she and her friends catch more of the Shakespeare’s jokes because they’ve spent so much time in the 1500s, so to speak. The more I read of books like How to Be a Tudor, the more sense New Historicism makes. Understanding the context doesn’t just help one understand the jokes, it helps one understand the meaning of the literature’s intended meaning. I was reminded of the medieval literature students I help at the Library every spring. It’s not enough for them just to read the text of The Canterbury Tales. It’s almost gibberish if they don’t know the allusions, the idioms and slang, and, yes, the jokes.

Because the Tudor era is less well documented than the Victorian era, How to Be a Tudor runs to less than 300 pages of text (not counting the bibliography and index). I’m not exactly disappointed that the book isn’t longer, though I do wish that this book could have provided as complete a picture of life in the 1500s as How to Be a Victorian did for the 1800s. This isn’t Goodman’s fault. The further away we are from a time period, the less likely we are to have documentation about humble life than we do about the high and the mighty. The discovery of the wreck of the Mary Rose was a windfall for researchers like Goodman. She references it frequently because the wreck preserved even things like the cook’s firewood. Without such archaeological finds—and Goodman’s experiences—so much of Tudor life would be a matter of conjecture.

I wonder which (if any) historical period Goodman will tackle next.


The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley

25434346I was hugely surprised to learn that Christopher Buckley had written a work of historical fiction. His oeuvre to date has been extremely current political satire. I admit that I would have read The Relic Master anyway—I’m a big fan of Buckley—I asked to review this book because I was terribly curious to see what he would do with a book set in the Holy Roman Empire between 1517 and 1519.

It’s clear from the outset that Buckley is not a regular writer of historical fiction. There’s very little of the extensive exposition one usually sees in this genre where authors regularly share—more or less competently—the fruits of their research. Most of The Relic Master is dialog; characters plot and threaten and banter for pages. The downside of the lack of scene-setting lead me to wonder why Buckley chose this setting.

The Relic Master of the title is Dismas. Dismas works for Frederick of Saxony and Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz as a relic hunter. They give him shopping lists and he combs the relic markets of mainland Europe for bits and pieces of Catholic saints (mostly bits). The relic market has been the target of satire and jokes as far back as Chaucer and Dismas has nothing but scorn for the fakers. In fact, his scorn is such that he’s built up a reputation as one of the few relic hunters likely to bring back something genuine. He might have been able to retire with a clear conscience if his banker hadn’t been caught embezzling funds. Broke, Dismas allows his friend, painter Albrecht Dürer, to talk him into a scheme to sell Albrecht of Mainz a fake shroud.

When the scheme goes wrong, Dismas is tortured by Albrecht of Mainz’s inquisitors and given an offer he can’t refuse. In exchange for his freedom, Dismas and Dürer must steal the Shroud of Chambery—later known as the Shroud of Turin. Albrecht sends along a trio of Landsknechte to make sure Dismas doesn’t bolt for safe ground in Switzerland. Dismas has to work out a way to steal the holiest and most guarded relic in Europe and, preferably, live to tell the tale.

When I learn of a new Christopher Buckley novel, I eagerly anticipate sharp, liberal-flavored satire. I was expecting the same from The Relic Master. Instead, I found a book that was curiously fangless. The setting was ripe for satire. 1517 is the traditional start of the Reformation and Martin Luther is frequently mentioned by the characters. Only a few of the characters comment on the macabre and fraudulent nature of the trade in saints’ relics. Only one character to my knowledge went further and pointed out that the sale of papal indulgences was nothing more than a money-making scheme for the Vatican. That’s as far as the satire goes. I had to wonder if religion is a subject that Buckley won’t fully engage.

This isn’t to say that The Relic Master is a disappointment. I had a good time reading this offbeat heist novel. Dismas and Dürer frequently had me laughing with their barbed banter. I just wish that Buckley had taken full advantage of the setting and the fact that the Reformation was just about to go nuclear instead of pulling his punches.

I received a free copy of this ebook via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 8 December 2015.

Fair Helen, by Andrew Grieg

The song “Fair Helen of Kirkconnel” was first recorded in the early 1800s by Walter Scott, who included some of the story behind the ballad. Andrew Grieg colors in the rest of the story with his novel, Fair HelenHarry Langton tells us at the beginning of Fair Helen that he’s going to tell us the real story behind the ballad, the star-crossed love story, and the politics of the Scottish Borderlands at the end of the sixteenth century.

Harry is telling his version of the tale some decades later. He’s lived an itinerant, lonely life as a scholar. His best years are are behind him, Harry tells us. Then he takes us back to Annandale. His best friend, Adam Fleming, has summoned Harry back to the region to watch his back. Adam thinks someone’s been trying to kill him, because he has fallen in love with the Fair Helen Irvine.

Helen is already promise to another man, a very advantageous match. Politics is everything, Harry soon shows us. Adam’s family has been feuding with Helen’s. (There is a distinct Romeo and Juliet feel to Fair Helen.) Adam’s family is allied with another noble family, the enemy of Helen’s family’s allies. It’s complicated. Things get even more complicated when Harry reveals that he’s not in Annandale just for Adam’s sake. He’s there because the new power in the region wants to keep an eye on things and exert just a bit of influence in matters.

We know from Harry’s foreshadowing (and the ballad) that things will not end well. But I stayed because I kept hoping that Helen and Adam would somehow find a way to cheat their fates. Maybe the song got the details wrong or were embellished to make a better story. What we don’t know is who the villains really are. Is Harry’s boss really on the side of love? Do the feuding families really want peace?

The action in Fair Helen is enough of a draw, but what I really loved was the language in the book. Grieg has his narrator use Lallans—Lowland Scots. (There’s a glossary at the end of the book.) It’s disconcerting at first. Scots words often sound like they should make sense. It’s a bit like listening to “Jabberwocky.” After a while, the Lallans gives a sense of place. I loved it. Lallans is an evocative dialect and beautiful to listen to.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.