Death and the Devil, By Frank Schätzing

A fresh whiff of Cologne
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The Independent Culture

Frank Schätzing was well-known in Germany for his historical novels before he achieved international recognition with his ecological thriller, The Swarm. Death and the Devil is a medieval mystery, set in 13th-century Cologne. In the shadow of the cathedral, still under construction, Jacob the Fox, a beggar conspicuous by his red hair, has the ill-luck to espy a murder – and the murderer spies him.

There follows a game of cat-and-mouse through the city, from its markets to its middens, as Jacob is pursued by an assassin armed with a strange crossbow. The chase creates a colourful picture of medieval city life, taking us into some dangerous places, including a leper colony.

As in all the best medieval romances, a beautiful young woman comes to Jacob's aid. But the unheroic Fox becomes involved in a vicious political imbroglio. The death he witnessed was that of the architect of the cathedral, and the incident merely one stage in a bitter conflict between church and state. The Archbishop of Cologne is locked in a power-struggle with rich patrician families, and neither side has scruples; they use any means to gain their ends.

The book, translated by Mike Mitchell, rises well above the level of most historical mysteries by its inclusion of the religious debates of the time. It is hard now for us to visualise the theological climate in which matters such as the nature of sin were discussed as keenly as football today, but this intellectual atmosphere is vividly brought to life.

In another respect, we might find identification easier: this is a society suffering from the effects of foreign conflict. Old Crusaders with post-traumatic stress disorders, the effects of horrible sights in foreign countries, are stalking the land. How might they be serving the lofty burghers of the city? The hunts around stinking alleys and rich mansions are well done, deeply enriched by historical research, and the setting a freshly enjoyable one for the UK reader – though there is an entertaining British connection at the end.