Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church by Indrek Hargla
Rating: 4 stars
In honor of Mystery & Thriller Week, I though I would review a mystery I read last year that isn’t as well known as it should be. This is a popular series in Europe, but only two books have translated into English so far. Below is the plot description:
The Apothecary Melchior series plunges the reader into 15th-century Tallinn when Estonia is at the edge of Christian lands and the last foothold before the East: a town of foreign merchants and engineers, dominated by the mighty castle of Toompea and the construction of St Olaf’s Church, soon to become the tallest building in the world. Apothecary Melchior is a divisive figure in the town: respected for his arcane knowledge and scientific curiosity but also slightly feared for his mystical witch-doctor aura. When a mysterious murder occurs in the castle, Melchior is called in to help find the killer and reveals a talent for detection. But Tallinn has a serial killer in its midst, and Melchior is tested to the limit in a plot with as many twists and turns as the turreted castle itself. Melchior uncovers a mystery surrounding St Olaf’s and a secret society that has been controlling the town for years, uncovering truths about the town that may spell danger.
This mystery takes place in medieval Estonia where the local apothecary, more like a chemist, pharmacist, and sometimes doctor to his patients, relies on his infallible use of logic to solve a series of murders that may be related to the construction of St. Olaf’s Church. There is a large community of merchants in Tallinn, but they town is ruled over by a group of religious knights. The book begins when one of those knights traveling through the town was found beheaded with a rare coin in his mouth. The town is under pressure to provide a murderer for the knights so they can get justice (which at the time was just a synonym for revenge).
To start off, this book is incredibly well researched. Incredibly. Well. Researched. There actually was a murder of a high ranking night in Tallinn in 1409 according to surviving records from the Tallinn’s Town Council. There is no record of who the murderer was, though, so this story is fiction based off of real events in 1409. The politics and divisions of the town are also based on the actual changes that took place as the commercial lower town was growing stronger than the upper town controlled by the religious knights. These tensions are expertly and realistically weaved throughout the book. There are also so many more tiny details from the medicines that Melchior creates to festival feasts, beer-making in the 1400s, and the guild membership process.
The mystery was interesting to read, as the strange circumstances surrounding the first murder and seemingly random additional murders leave you with enough clues and red herrings to keep you guessing until the final Agatha Christie-like unveiling in a room full of the main suspects. The main character, Apothecary Melchior, is a great detective. He reminds me of Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin with his commitment to logic and belief that mysteries can be unraveled as long as you stick to the facts.
There was one weird part about a disease that Melchior has that has been in his family for generations. Those couple of pages describing the effects and what his wife does to help seem pretty weird, random, and out of place with the rest of the book. You will know what I am referring to when you get to that part.
This book was definitely an engaging and smart mystery, and I plan on reading the second translated book in the series soon. Unfortunately it is the last one translated into English so far :(.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in historical fiction, well-researched fiction about medieval Europe, and good detective stories.