Death and the Devil

Written by (trans. Mike Mitchell) Frank Schatzing
Review by C.W. Gortner

Set against the backdrop of the building of one of the world’s largest cathedrals and the power struggles between the merchant ruling class and Cologne’s archbishop in 13th century Germany, Death and the Devil offers a glimpse into a rarely-explored era. This historical thriller, which debuted in Europe in 1995 and became a bestseller, is newly available in English for the first time.

Schatzing weaves an improbable but engaging tale around the historically documented death of architect Gerard Morart, who fell from the scaffolding of the very cathedral he designed. His cast of fictional and real-life characters includes a wily red-haired thief who witnesses the architect’s plunge; a lovely dyer’s daughter, her learned uncle, and drunkard father; various scheming merchants; and a callous killer.

Through these points of view, Schatzing delivers a multifaceted portrait of life in medieval Cologne, from the lowest class to the highest. It is both the novel’s strength and disadvantage that this choice, while panoramic, tends to dilute the mystery at the story’s core. Nevertheless, the thief’s relationships with the learned uncle—who’s given to bouts of fierce philosophical debate—and with the tormented murderer intent on destroying him give the novel its heart.