DEATH IN DELFT by Graham Brack is the first historical murder investigation in the Master Mercurius Mystery series: atmospheric crime thrillers set in seventeenth-century Europe. Click here to pre-order.
Most crime writers have a keen sense of place. Something about a setting grabs them and tells them there is a story here.
So it was with me. When you live in Cornwall, the quickest place to get to on the continent is Amsterdam, because there is a flight from Exeter, so over the years my wife and I have been frequent visitors to the Netherlands.
The first place we went was Delft. As is well known, Delft is the city of Vermeer; but it is also the city of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the father of modern microscopy. Not only did they live within around 250 metres of each other, they were born within a few days of October 1632. Can you imagine being a schoolteacher who had two such boys in their class?
I was turning this around in my mind when the idea came to me that people often ask whether detection is an art or a science. Well, if these two could not tell you, who could? Making them into detectives in their own right would be a bit of a stretch, but they could vie to assist a third person, and that’s how my Dutch series was born.
In the year 1671, three young girls disappear from their homes in Delft. Two come from poor families, but one is the daughter of a local dignitary. The mayor recognises that he needs help to find these girls, and writes to the nearby University of Leiden, asking the Rector to send the cleverest man he can spare.
Master Mercurius is undoubtedly clever. He is, in effect, an Oxbridge don transported to another time and country, but like many an academic he is completely wrapped up in his subject – moral philosophy – and has very little experience of the world. He does not want to let the Rector and the University down, but he is acutely aware that brains alone will not solve this mystery. Fortunately, he has Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek to help, and together they set out to retrieve the girls and discover the culprit. In a nutshell, that is how I came to write Death in Delft, in which Mercurius narrates – very frankly – his experiences.
I don’t think it counts as a spoiler if I say that he is successful and returns to his study with something of a reputation. Unfortunately for him, in 1674 the Stadhouder – the man we know as King William III – needs some assistance in putting down a conspiracy which seeks to remove him from power. It seems likely that someone in high places is pulling the strings, so William needs an intelligent outsider to look into the matter, and his gaze falls upon Mercurius, who is summoned from Leiden. In Untrue till Death Mercurius will find himself personally threatened – and since he is no man of action, he does not enjoy it at all.
However, success in unravelling this mystery only means that when William next needs help he thinks once more of Mercurius, so in 1676 our hero is packed off on a boat to London as part of the embassy negotiating the marriage of William III and Princess Mary. The trouble is that somebody does not want the wedding to go ahead, so in Dishonour and Obey Mercurius finds that there is more to marriage preparation than sitting down with the young couple to talk them through their vows.
Mercurius is a very reluctant detective, as he never tires of telling us. He likes nothing better than sitting quietly reading a book, ideally in a tavern where people leave him alone. As a man of the cloth, he has a strong moral sense but he is a bit squeamish about the punishments of the day. Of course, he knows that a couple of hours of misery on a scaffold are nothing compared with what awaits an unrepentant criminal in the next life, but he feels responsible for one and not for the other.
He also has no idea at all about women. He is not immune to their charms; in fact, he spends much of his time under the spell of young women, but Mercurius has a little secret.
And no, I’m not going to tell you what it is. You’ll have to read the books to find out.