“Death In Delft” by Graham Brack

Unconventional cleric investigates the disappearance of three eight-year-old girls in Delft in 1671 and meets anyone you’ve ever heard of from seventeenth-century Delft along the way.

‘Death In Delft’ is the start of a new Historical Murder Mystery series following the adventures of Master Mercurius in seventeenth-century Holland.

It’s told in the form of a journal written by Master Mercurius some years later. This allows Mercurius to comment on the errors of judgement and excesses of optimism that his younger self suffers from. It provides an intimacy with Master Mercurius, who shares his thoughts in his journal in ways that he doesn’t feel free to do in conversation with others. It also allows a certain amount of foreboding to increase tension and some neat wrapping up of the ‘only four years later, the same man would…’ kind.

The mystery and the unfolding of the plot are both fairly straight-forward with the only novelty coming from the methods that Master Mercurius uses. The plot is really a vehicle for Master Mercurius to meet a wide variety of people in Delft, especially the rich men who run the place. Mercurius dines with just about anyone you’ve ever heard of in seventeenth-century Delft and we hear about their passions and their ambitions.

At the centre of the whole thing is Master Mercurius himself, a man who studies at the University at Leiden and who has, for reasons that this first book in the series never got to the bottom of, been ordained both as a Protestant Minister and a Catholic Priest. The latter, is something that he has to keep secret in Holland, a predominantly Protestant country with a sporadic history of executing Catholics as political winds change direction.

Initially, I quite liked this bright but slightly innocent cleric but, on closer acquaintance, I become disenchanted with his flippancy and found it hard to believe that he was a man with a vocation as a Catholic Priest. Here’s an example of why, He is explaining why he needs to spend a little time getting together a list of sins before going to confession on a Friday:

I hesitate to claim any special holiness of my own, but fortunately I have been prevented from sin by an almost total lack of opportunities: I have no need of money, and women have always found me immensely resistible, so occasions for sin do not often come my way. The result is that on the eve of confession it usually takes me quite a while to think of anything to confess, and I frequently find myself making things up, such as owning up to impure thoughts that I have not actually had. This is a good choice, because confessors, being priests (and men) themselves, sympathise and keep the penances to a minimum so that we will go on sharing our imaginary sexual fantasies with them in the confessional; when you have passed an hour or two on the other side of the grille hearing people’s confessions, you can do with all the excitement you can get.

I thought ‘Death In Delft’ was a pleasant, gentle read that gave me a window into a world I knew very little about but I didn’t like Master Mercurius well enough to seek out his company a second time.

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