Chief among the many gifts the husband and wife writing team of Michael G Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio bring to this atmospheric thriller is the ability to deliver the
environment of Prussia's Baltic Coast in 1808 as a living, breathing, odiferous
locale. Indeed, it is fair to say I spent a good deal of the time reading this
novel with my nose wrinkled. But that is a good thing, since the effect not only
enhances a sense of place but brings the summer of 1808 to the forefront to the
extent that it becomes its own vibrant character. At the outset it interacts
with Magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis as he dodges flies attracted to the dung mounds
that clog the roads in his tiny hamlet. It even interferes with his wife
Helena's sleep when she dreams that one of those cursed flies has crawled into
her baby's mouth.
But that's just the beginning. Throughout, the hot weather, the frigid ocean, the fetid air of neglect that pervades since the French have all but ravaged Prussia intermingle with and alter the circumstances surrounding the grisly murders Stiffeniis has been ordered to solve. With only rudimentary tools and limited investigative resources he is forced to deal with elements that cloud people's memories, natural environments both outdoors and in that blur or obscure critical details and exhaustive, time-consuming travel conditions that impede his progress at every turn. In all, between the mud, the waste, the offal and the foods with questionable expiration dates, 1808 Prussia seems like the last place anybody would want to conduct a murder investigation.
As if all that weren't enough, Magistrate Stiffeniis knows he has been set up if not to fail, at the very least to deliver a conveniently guilty Prussian into the hands of Napoleon's army. One day he's collecting dung samples to bolster his case that Napoleon's army is endangering the Prussian people's health, the next he is en route to the coast by special request of a high ranking French officer. The officer needs a scapegoat for the murder of a young Prussian woman - the first in what becomes series of killings. His next in command, Colonel les Halles, is afraid the murders will jeopardize his plans for glory via an amber-harvesting machine that will displace the girls. The girls, at the bottom of this power food chain and who previously just wanted to make some money and maybe escape the hazardous job of mining for amber, now want to avoid being murdered themselves. In the middle of all this Stiffeniis stands alone as a beacon of enlightened thought who wants simply to get to the bottom of the murders.
While the sights, sounds and smells of 1808 threaten to boil over, the dynamic surrounding the two disenfranchised groups (the Prussians and the amber mining girls) and the conquering French simmers on another storytelling burner. The situation is further complicated by the fact that these are not the best of the French forces - they have been reluctantly posted to Prussia in order to keep the Prussian rebels in check and acquire enough amber to finance Napoleon's efforts to subjugate Spain, so he can move on to Russia. So, in their own way, even the French soldiers are disenfranchised.
On the front burner the mystery of the murdered mining girls steps lively amid the searing heat and the politics, taking a twist here, a turn or two there including a 19th Century slo-mo (by 21st Century standards) chase and enough harrowing moments to keep a reader on the edge of the seat.
This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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