Untrue Till Death (Master Mercurius Mysteries)

Written by Graham Brack
Review by Judith Starkston

Set in 1674 in the Netherlands, this second in series offers an intricate, intellectual murder puzzle to solve amidst the academic debates of the University of Leiden and the intrigues surrounding William of Orange’s leadership. By series premise, Mercurius, philosophy master, is writing his memoirs. This time, his remembered tale concerns the “accidental” death of a colleague who fell down some stairs. The novel’s plot flows from there as William forces Mercurius into investigating political conspiracies, which leads to yet another murder and a too-close cooperation with a torturer—also, a romantic entanglement that Mercurius, as a hidden Catholic priest, shouldn’t participate in, but he does admire a beautiful woman.

The dominant charm of Brack’s writing lies in Mercurius’s deadpan voice. He combines references to cerebral philosophical arguments (in accessible ways) with a self-deprecating, cynical take on human nature. In an early scene with the rector of the university, for example, Mercurius realizes that he’s being set up for the unenviable job of giving a lecture to their students warning against the evils of visiting whores. He thinks to himself, “I was convinced that in a contest between my moral philosophy seminars and an evening between the ample breasts of Fat Lysbeth, I was unlikely to come out on top, if you’ll pardon the expression.” Here and elsewhere Mercurius’s inner language shades into contemporary idiom, but humor carries it off for the most part. Brack also vividly depicts the Dutch cities and countryside, along with details of daily life and academic peculiarities. He takes us back to a time and place rarely covered by historical mysteries with authority and obvious depth of knowledge. A pleasing package of history, philosophy, and murderous fun.