The Apothecary Melchior series by Indrek Hargla is pretty well unknown in the UK but very popular in his native Estonia. He is probably best known there for his fantasy and ‘alternative history’ stories but Melchior is Hargla’s foray into medieval crime making him the closest Estonian equivalent of Ellis Peters here in the UK with her Brother Cadfael tales. The Melchior novels are set in the capital, Tallinn, in the early 1400’s as the city was going through a massive building programme, with the city walls mostly constructed along with some of the significant buildings but others parts are clearly still being worked on including the main square.
Although there are now six novels in the series only two have so far been translated into English and are published by Peter Owen however as can be seen from the covers these don’t look like part of a series. It seems an odd choice by the publisher to make them look so unlike and they are also translated by different people.
- … and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Oleviste mõistatus published 2010 – translated in 2015 by Adam Cullen
- … and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Rataskaevu viirastus published 2010 – translated in 2016 by Christopher Moseley
I was first introduced to the books by my Estonian friend who gave me the second book for my birthday last year, it had to be book two as she couldn’t find a translation of the first one in Estonia. One of the problems I have found with translations from Estonian is their variable quality; so whilst I enjoy the books I have read in translation, quite often I find myself having to reread sections to be sure I have understood what is being said. This was not a problem with The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street, I sat and read it quite quickly, especially on the one day when out in the Estonian countryside there was just torrential rain so getting out and enjoying the area was not possible. Unfortunately the translation of The Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church is not as good so this may explain the change of translator for the second novel. The book is still perfectly readable but the flow of the narrative seems forced at times and I’m inclined to blame the translator rather than the author here as Hargla had been writing for many years before these books and they both came out in the same year so it’s not a case of the original authorship style changing. My friend also loves the series and I doubt she would have if she had started with this one.
Melchior is in the classic tradition of the amateur sleuth who finds himself drawn into mysteries and providing assistance to the city authorities and through him we learn about the power conflicts in the city as the Teutonic knights in their castle are slowly losing control to the expanding city council along with the rivalries between the various religious bodies that still held enormous influence at the time. Whilst reading it, the first book appears to be misnamed for a long time, as very little appears to happen at St Olaf’s and it is only at the conclusion that the church’s role in the story is explained. At the start the book seems like a simple mystery as to who murdered one of the knights in the castle itself. Melchior gets involved due to his specialist knowledge as an apothecary making him one of the few scientifically trained people in the city and he sees it initially as a way of currying favour with the city fathers who need the murder solving quickly to keep the knights happy. In turn he looks for their assistance in opening the main city pharmacy which would catapult him up the social standings in Tallinn. The book is set in 1409, thirteen years before such a pharmacy was actually opened in the city so we know he isn’t going to get anywhere with that plan soon. Without giving any of the plot away, the story moves around the city introducing each of the power brokers in the place and ultimately reaches a denouement at St Olaf’s at the other end of Pikk, one of the longest streets in Tallinn.
The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street starts out much closer to home for Melchoir as this is where his home and small shop are situated. The tale is darker than the first book with rivalries between senior families leading to some pretty horrific situations for some of the protagonists, it is also more character driven than the first. We see a greater strata of the city’s population from the highest nobles of the Merchant Guilds to shop and bar keepers, sailors, servants and serfs. The Guilds are now getting more powerful, as would be the case all over Europe at this time but especially in the Hanseatic League which included Estonia and whose merchants controlled large parts of international trade in Northern Europe. By 1419 which is when this book is set they had recently built a guild house in the centre of the city and this alongside the City Hall was where power was slowly drifting away from the knights in their castle on Toompea Hill. The families involved in the story are senior guild members and this makes solving the crimes more difficult as Melchior must be very careful not to annoy the very people he is investigating.
One of the joys of reading the books after visiting Tallinn is that most of the places mentioned are still standing and the city looks much as it did 700 years ago, except obviously a lot cleaner that it would have been at the time.
A general view of the city from the castle on Toompea
The Long Leg gateway, entrance to the castle seen from the end of Rataskaevu Street
St Olaf’s church on Pikk
The Guild Hall
and finally the Apothecary in the main square that Melchior so wants to found. As said above this opened in 1422 and it is now the oldest still working pharmacy in the world.
Seek out the Melchior stories, I hope that Peter Owen will get round to the others soon.
According to a chart in the i newspaper last week Estonian’s spend more time on average reading books than any other nation in Europe and Estonian authors certainly produce a wide range of work which I will be dipping into again in future blogs.