The Alchemist’s Apprentice by Dave Duncan
For reasons never clear to me, my Grandma always claimed she had second sight.
Although, when I come to think of it, this does explain why I was always a serious disappointment to her (even before I was born or so my mother alleges). Anyway, my Grandma had the good fortune to start her life as a member of a well-to-do, upper middle class family. As was the fashion, they dabbled with séances, table turning and all the other socially acceptable forms of spiritualism. I suppose it was a good way to add a frisson of excitement to an otherwise boring evening if someone could vomit a pile of ectoplasm on to the carpet and then make it disappear without the aid of a maid. Later, her good fortune came to an abrupt end with the unexpected death of her much-loved husband. Life can be hard sometimes.
When I was growing up, my mother regularly walked me round to visit her mother (I think it was a kind of penance) and, after sandwiches and cake, there was always a reading of the tea leaves. My Grandma would swirl the almost empty cup and invert it into the saucer. Pointing the cup, her practised eye surveyed the shapes formed by the stranded leaves, and cascades of prediction filled the air between us — Grandma was usually pleasingly obscure albeit never in the same league as Nostradamus. As a callow youth, I always found the performance mesmerising, but I’ve never asked my mother whether she took any of the divination seriously. All I know is that the ritual filled a twenty minute gap when conversation might otherwise have flagged.
And speaking of Nostradamus (in this case, a fictionalised nephew Filippo rather than the more famous Michel) brings me to The Alchemist’s Apprentice by Dave Duncan (Ace, March, 2007).
I confess to liking books that take their predicates seriously and work out all the awkward implications. So, this is a classical historical murder mystery with a fantasy twist. Classical because the murder takes place in a room with only (about) a dozen people present which limits the number of suspects, and historical because it’s set in the Venice of the Doge in the mid- to late-sixteenth century. In this instance, the Great Detective knows almost from the outset who dunit — he is, after all, one of Europe’s foremost seers and well-versed in the occult. Naturally, he lives up to his reputation by throwing himself into a trance and autowriting himself the answer.
As an aside, this conflation of genre elements is quite brave in the current publishing environment when everything is usually commissioned and packaged according to a rigid formula. For once, potential readers are treated as having the general wit and internal strength to read and enjoy a book that crosses multiple genres. I wish more publishers would abandon simplistic marketing strategies and publish books on their merits even though this may pose problems for literal-minded booksellers — those store shelves are so conveniently and exclusively labelled mystery, historical and fantasy.
Returning to the book, there is but one small awkward implication in all this. If you know who dunit because you invoked a diabolical fiend and asked, this is not something you can admit in a polite mediaeval Catholic society. Sadly, consorting with devils is frowned upon and, once known, invariably results in a particularly painful and long-drawn-out form of execution. So, the plot requires the Great Detective who, like many others before him, is physically challenged and doesn’t get out much, to obtain secular proof to satisfy the ordinary mortals running the local law-enforcement agencies.
The solution, of course, conforms to the usual detective template. If you can’t do it yourself, you have a Dr. John H. Watson, Captain Arthur Hastings or Archie Goodwin (I always was a fan of Nero Wolfe) who will go out and do it for you. In this case, the poor sap is the eponymous apprentice, Alfeo Zeno. Because he’s not so good at keeping secrets (given that state inquisitors may be encouraging a free exchange of information), Nostradamus decides to keep the identity of the murderer to himself. This releases an agent provocateur into a volatile social and political situation and, ultimately leads to various unmaskings (of both the Carnival and non-Carnival variety).
Structurally, the balance between historical detail and the plot is managed well. It’s always tempting for an author to overelaborate and show off his research, but Duncan has his eye firmly on unravelling the suspects’ secrets, which turn out to be many and varied. Equally, the infusion of the fantasy element is restrained and well-integrated. Unlike The Price Of Silence by Kate Wilhelm, where the supernatural element is almost completely redundant to the otherwise intriguing mystery plot, this set of magical abilities adds new levels of danger and temptation to the lives of the Great Detective and his apprentice. What limited powers they have are double-edged and often provide only obscure results (as those of you who have looked at Nostradamus’ quatrains will know). But, when everyone is called back into the fatal dining room for the Great Detective to reveal all in a dramatic recreation of the original night, it’s the application of prosaic investigative skills and simple logic that lead us to the conclusion. The book is therefore predominately a mystery novel (hint to shelvers even though the blurb on this trade paperback inconveniently proclaims “Fantasy”).
Does the author play fair in the plotting? I’m pleased to report that he does. Sometimes mystery solutions flow from key details not revealed to the reader, but Duncan allows the apprentice to see and consider the implications of what he has seen. It’s then up to us to decide what weight to attach to each fact and opinion. I confess that I got it wrong. But, were she still around, my Grandma would apply her tasseomancy to this cheerful brew of mystery (and magic) and not only identify the killer, but almost certainly foresee a sequel, probably titled The Alchemist’s Code, due from the hands of a tall bespectacled, white-haired Scottish/Canadian author in 2008. And looking even further into the future, you can also expect The Alchemist’s Pursuit and The Alchemist’s Code. A new series starts with Speak to the Devil and When the Saints, and we have a stand-alone called Pock’s World.