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Bookends: Musical Machinations Mingle with Murder February 6, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Musical Machinations Mingle with Murder

By Dan Davidson

September 12, 2012,      Star, Sept. 14/13Mastersinger

– 790 words –


The Mastersinger from Minsk

By Morley Torgov


327 pages



This is the second in the adventures of Inspector Hermann Preiss, who debuted in 2008 in the book Murder in A-major. In that book he was involved with the musical social set of Robert and Clara Schumann, Franz Lizst, and Johannes Brahms. I haven’t read that book, but references to the earlier case lead me to believe that the solution to the problems encountered in it was less that satisfactory in some peoples’ eyes.

The present book is set a few years later and Preiss has moved from Düsseldorf to Munich, to become the new chief inspector there. This is much to the displeasure of one Franz Brunner, who had been angling for that post himself, and feels unfairly passed over. That being the case, office politics is just one of the many problems faced by Preiss as he works his way through the morass of problems engendered by the presence of Richard Wagner in town. Wagner is rehearsing for the opening of his newest opera, Die Meistersinger von Nünburg, and driving a whole herd of people to distraction with his autocratically arrogant ways.

We step into the story in the third person, watching as Wagner browbeats and humiliates a series of tenors auditioning for the lead role in Die Meistersinger, finally settling on an unknown young man, Henryk Schramm, who will turn out to have a mysterious past.

The remainder of the book is narrated to us by Preiss himself, who is not without his own quality of arrogance, but seems, on the whole, to be a decent enough fellow and quite capable in his role as top cop.

Some of his problems come from above. While Wagner was once banned from for his involvement in socialist politics, by 1864 he had gained favour with the King of Bavaria and had settled in Munich. Practically all of the upper crust except the King would have liked to have had an excuse to exile him from there as well. They do get him out of town for a while, but in 1868 he is back to stage his opera, with the King’s blessing.

When Wagner receives a letter threatening the ruination of his opera he calls on the police to investigate. Preiss takes the case, but is immediately summoned by his chief, who makes it clear than both he and mayor expect Preiss to dig up some dirt on the composer who is, by this time, living common law with the wife of the very man, Hans von Bülow, who is the conductor of his orchestra. As far as the senior authorities are concerned, Wagner can go down in flames as long as the flames shoot him out of town.

Then the murders begin and, one by one, major members of the cast and backstage crew are bumped off by someone using a long, thin, needle-like object. There are almost no clues at the murder scenes and the only connection between the victims is that they are involved with the opera, which naturally makes everyone connect the killings to the threatening letters.

Ah-hah, say Preiss’s superiors. It must be Wagner. Find him guilty, Preiss, if you want to serve your city and keep your job.

But it can’t be Wagner, because all of these deaths actually hurt his opera’s chances of success and he would never do that. He’s obsessed with succeeding, which is why he’s such a pain to work with. Besides, he actually has alibis for some of them, so it’s just not possible.

Morley Torgov (while still a member of a law firm at the age of 85) is better known in literary circles as a humourist, having twice won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour (1975 and 1983). There are those touches in this book, though mostly found in the pompous portrayal of Wagner and in Preiss’s internal musings on the situations in which he finds himself, whether he is dealing with Wagner, his superiors, his rivals, or the complicated matter of his own love-life.

There’s quite a high body count in this book and Preiss does allow himself to get distracted by what turn out to be red herrings, as well as by the dichotomy between his duty as a policeman and his duty to the commissioner and the mayor.

This is not a thriller or a police procedural, but more an historical novel with a mystery to move the story forward. As such, I found it quite enjoyable. Should I encounter the first of these books, I would be interested to see how it turned out as well.










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