(Book Review) Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla

By Ian G. Wilson

melchiorWhen I next travel to Europe, I want to visit Tallinn. The capital of Estonia is now a modern city of 440,000 and a center of information technology. But the town was founded in 1248 and has a remarkably preserved historical district, churches, and a fortress atop the hill of Toompea. Looking at photographs of Tallinn, you see many medieval buildings mixed in with the modern tall office buildings, including old St. Olaf’s Church, which was the skyscraper of its day, having a spire that was reputed to be the tallest in the world until the early 17th century.

It is helpful to have some background on Tallinn before you read Indrek Hargla’s mystery Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church. During the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, the city was part of the Hanseatic League, which was an alliance of merchant towns, primarily German cities, but stretching as far north as Estonia. The League, including Tallinn, suffered depredation from the Victual Brothers, a band of pirates who were known for their vicious attacks on ports and ships. Their stronghold on the Baltic island of Gotland was conquered by the Teutonic Knights in 1398.

It is against this somewhat complex historical background that the story takes place. The time is shortly after the conquest of Gotland and the destruction of the Victual Brothers, although the pirates’ raids are still fresh in local memory. The Teutonic Knights control Toompea Hill from the castle and are responsible for protecting the town, though Tallinn itself has its own government and magistrate. Relations between the Knights and the town are courteous, but a little tense, particularly after Henning von Clingenstain, a visiting commander of the Teutonic Order from Gotland, is found beheaded in his quarters at Toompea Castle and it is suspected that someone from the town is responsible for the crime.

“The Magistrate of Tallinn Town Council, Wentzel Dorn, was standing before Councilman Bockhorst and an attendant of the Teutonic Order and in his mind was running through all the positions he would much rather hold than the cursed and detestable office of magistrate, or vogt. The first that came to mind was the honourable occupation of brewer, for two reasons: first, a brewer always has fresh beer close by; and second, a brewer is never hounded out of bed early in the morning nor ordered to appear urgently at the Town Hall where awaiting him was—oh merciful Lord—the personal attendant to the Commander of the Teutonic Order in Tallinn bearing the sort of news that should cause one’s hair to fall out.”

Fortunately, Magistrate Dorn has a friend in Melchior Wankenstede, the town’s apothecary, a young man noted for his shrewd judgement and uncanny knack for solving perplexing problems. The town pharmacy appears to be something of a combination of drugstore and soda fountain (though Melchior’s drinks are a little stiffer than a strawberry milkshake), with people stopping in not only to fill their prescriptions but to gossip, which puts the good apothecary in a position to know a lot about the undercurrents of city affairs. The most important players in Tallinn, apart from the Teutonic Knights and the Town Council, are the various trade guilds and the Dominican Order, each of which has their own secrets. But it is interesting to note how interconnected these separate entities are. Beer seems to be the great equalizer among them. Even the Dominicans partake; they are said to brew the best beer in town. At a tasting hosted by Master Freisinger, head of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, members from all the city’s important groups are in attendance:

“Melchior counted about fifty men gathered at the Brotherhood of Blackheads’ guildhall that evening, the most esteemed among them being the Commander of the Order, the Dominican Prior, and the Tallinn Town Councilmen. The rules of the Smeckeldach also prescribed that there could not be two guests of honour at any one time; this distinction could not be shared. Thus Commander Spanheim—as the chief judge—sat slightly apart from the long table in his place of honour, and Freisinger himself assumed the duty of serving the knight. The Blackhead hosts and the devout Brother Wunbaldus attended to the other guests’ beer steins.”

The mystery of who removed von Clingenstain’s head is certainly a thorny one, and when an itinerant master builder working on the new spire of St. Olaf’s is also divested of his, Melchior must delve deeply into old legends surrounding the original construction of the church to discover the culprit. The result is a fascinating, and somewhat bizarre, motivation for the crimes.

Plot, character, and attention to historical detail are probably the three greatest strengths of Hargla’s outing. Like any good mystery, the twists and turns, false clues, and red herrings lead to a dramatic denouement. And the solution is rooted in events within recent memory of the characters as well as ones long past, so it ties in nicely with the historical details. The locals are carefully described and their traits built up through observations by and interactions with the apothecary. Melchior himself, in addition to being a clever, chatty sleuth and an excellent pharmacist, is haunted by a family curse, one which only his wife can resolve. And the places mentioned in the story, from St. Olaf’s to the Blackheads’ guildhall, are all real life structures to be found in Tallinn’s historic district.

The book fails slightly in the quality of the writing. In fairness, some of this may be the result of poor translation from the Estonian or lack of care from the publisher; I noticed a number of spelling and grammatical errors in my copy. Sentence structure is simplistic, and there is heavy reliance on dialog. But Hargla, himself a native of Tallinn, seems aware that he has a winner on his hands in terms of setting and plays it up for all it’s worth. For those looking for a glimpse into the world of early 15th century Estonia (and it’s a much more fascinating world than you might suppose) this is definitely a novel worth reading. The role of the guilds, the criminal justice system of the time, the state of medical science, and the pastimes of the people are all vividly on display.

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church is part of a popular series in Europe; the first two titles are available in the United States. The book is published by Peter Owen (translation, 2015), and is now available at Greenville Public Library.

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