Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery Of St Olaf’s Church is the first book in the medieval detective series by Indrek Hargla, featuring apothecary Melchior Wakenstede from the city of Reval (now Tallinn, in Estonia). Reval was a flourishing Hanseatic city on the edge of Christendom in the country called Livonia at that time. Livonia had no king and no capital, it was divided by bishoprics and a religious military corporation – the Order of Teutonic Knights.
The first book starts with a brutal murder of a political power figure. Knight von Clingenstain is mysteriously killed, with his head chopped off and an old coin is found in his mouth. It seems that the murderer has escaped from the Teutonic castle to the city and the knights have no jurisdiction over there. Therefore the city’s council is tasked to find the killer and bring him to the justice. A certain apothecary called Melchior, known for his sharp mind, is called to help the magistrate. But there will be more murders, all somehow connected with Saint Olaf’s church.
Eventually Melchior finds the killer, but he finds much more, secrets buried in the deep past that probably should have stayed buried.
I have always been an admirer of classic crime novels rather than the roman policier or psychological crime novel. When I started to write the Melchior stories I thought that the medieval Reval is an ideal setting for a classical crime novel – guilds, monasteries, merchants, beggars – a closed society where everyone has its own secrets.
What posed more problems was how to transform the framework and the rules of a classic crime novel to the medieval society. The understanding of criminal justice in the 15th Century was quite different. There were no sheriffs in German lands, unlike in England, and we really do not know in detail how the justice was served. There was no police force and the public authorities had no obligation to investigate the crimes. Investigation, as we know, was carried out only in the canonical courts. Civil courts had to rely on eyewitnesses. If nobody demanded justice and there were no eyewitnesses, civil authorities were probably not able to act.
The classic crime story emerged in the modern period where the murder was punished by execution or long–term imprisonment. Therefore the killer had to hide and conceal the crime, the killer had to mislead the investigation and plant false evidence. This was not the case in medieval times. A man could get away with murder if he truly repented, confessed, had high social status and the money to compensate the victim’s family, and agreed to go on a pilgrimage. There was a way to get rid of the sin of murder. At least in this world. The concept of imprisonment as a criminal punishment was unknown. Then again, there was no universal penal law, it was entirely up to the city council to find the suitable punishment. It could have been fine and pilgrimage, it could have been cooking in hot oil or burning alive – both punishments were actually used in Reval, depending on the nature of crime. No mercy was shown when the murder was committed against the godly order of things, against persons with higher social status.
Nevertheless, the murders did occur, and often the people responsible had good reasons to hide their crimes. The loss of social status, inheritance or good name in the eyes of the church were probably the main fears. Since poisoning, for instance, was a crime almost impossible to prove, the detective Melchior has to find ways to reveal the motives behind the murder.
Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church, by Indrek Hargla, the first Estonian crime novel ever to be published in English, is out now, published by Peter Owen price £9.99 paperback