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The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan

In my previous outings dealing with The Alchemist’s Apprentice and The Alchemist’s Code, I have hitched my wagon of disquisition to the admission that my grandma read tea leaves and claimed powers of clairvoyance. So it was that, once a week at its predictable time, the Lipton’s van pulled up in our street and the driver would start knocking on doors to sell his packets of floor-sweepings as my grandma uncharitably described the quality of the tea. Indeed, everyone from knife grinders to grocery delivery men variously announced their arrivals, often horse-drawn, by the ringing of bells or the honking of horns — dray horses were still making beer deliveries for Scottish & Newcastle Breweries when I left the North East in the 1960s. However, just as fashions change in delivery systems, my taste in drinks has also evolved. Perforce, tea was the main drink with food rationing continuing until the early 1950s and coffee beans hardly a priority for import to support post-war reconstruction. My taste for the overly milky and sweet concoctions of my youth slowly faded to be replaced by coffee — a drink that seemed more exotic to a teenager. Now, I rarely drink anything other than black coffee. This somewhat limits my ability to foretell the future since residual coffee grounds make very poor indicators of likely events. Instead, I rely on track record for predictive purposes.

With The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan, the third in the series, we have an emerging pedigree which predisposes the timorously optimistic book buyer to believe that the latest episode will be as good as the last. In fact, it proves an engaging read. We are plunged straight back into the Venice of the faux Nostradamus and his apprentice Alfeo with the ultimately invisible crime: the murder of a courtesan. As any patriarchally inclined observer will know, all prostitutes invite death simply by selling their bodies to men. That courtesans deal with a better class of men does not exempt them from this reality, particularly in late 16th or early 17th century Venice. Except that the circumstances surrounding this first death are unusual, and when the number of deaths rises to three and then four, it’s obvious that something more sinister is afoot. So Alfeo is sent out on to the mean canals to ask his questions and use his well-honed memory to remember every last detail of what he sees and hears while an increasingly disabled Nostradamus distracts himself from the pain of his rheumatism by concentrating his analytical mind on fitting the facts collected by Alfeo into a potential solution.

The supernatural element is slightly less prominent than in the two earlier volumes. Here Tarot forms the main guidance for the investigation and then there is the curious behaviour of the cat. So how does the “problem” and its solution match up to the previous volumes?

The Alchemist’s Code remains one of the most elegant reveals of the last five years or so. It cannot easily be surpassed. In this third volume, there’s slightly less mystery — the actual whodunit is fairly obvious because of the small number of possible suspects — but the overall context for the deaths is most cleverly worked out and highly credible. Even on the last two or three pages, details are still emerging which give psychological depth to the “answer”. That not everything is played fair because some of the explanation depends on what Alfeo can see but does not describe in sufficient detail is more or less forgivable. Almost all mystery/detective stories “cheat” to some extent. As a story slowly revealed through Alfeo’s investigation and the musing of Nostradamus, this shows everyone caught up in a wonderfully tangled web, with all elements drawn together in a most satisfying way. It more or less stands on its own but, as with all series, the enjoyment is enhanced when you read the books in order and watch how the characters develop and interact.

A new series starts with Speak to the Devil and we have a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

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