Pharmacist Melchior and the Ghost of the Wheel Well


Apteeker Melchior ja Rataskaevu viirastus

Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Varrak, 2010, pp. 288

 Indrek Hargla (1970) is a favourite of many Estonian readers and one of the most popular authors of Estonian fantasy fiction. Since 1998, Hargla has published numerous short stories, more than ten novellas and eight novels. He has repeatedly received the Estonian science fiction award “Stalker” for an original book, novella or short story. He also received the prestigious Friedebert Tuglas short story award in 2009.

Besides fantasy, detective stories and horror, Hargla’s more popular books deal with alternative history. The most renowned among them is a trilogy about the adventures of two characters named “French” and “Koulu”: French and Koulu (2005), French and Koulu in Tarbatu and Travels of French and Koulu (2009). Koulu is an arrogant poet and magician, but also a spy from the country of Maavald (meaning “Ancient Estonia”) and French is Koulu’s slave of French origin.

Hargla has worked hard in depicting the country of Maavald and has created a world with its own state, people, language, culture, economy, military organisation and history. This mythological world would, despite some witty allegorical moments, still remain somewhat abstract, as anti-utopias often do, if it were not enlivened by a couple of heroes of an almost classical nature. In these stories, written in a humorous picaresque style, this pair of heroes fights against numerous and varied evil forces.

Pharmacist Melchior and the Mystery of St.Olaf’s Church marks Hargla’s successful debut as an author of detective fiction. The novel is set in the Tallinn of 1409. The protagonist is the first and only pharmacist of Tallinn at that time and, surprising to all, a very smart man. The gallery of characters includes secular and clerical dignitaries, Dominicans, members of the Brotherhood of Black Heads, musicians and beautiful ladies. The book opens with a mysterious killing of an Order knight and more murders follow. The pharmacy plays a central role in the town life, as it is where people meet and share information. The protagonist, Melchior, is a relatively young man; his seemingly cheerful and carefree disposition hides a deep fear, caused by a curse on his family. By the end of the book, Melchior solves the mystery of four murders committed in the town.

The gallery of characters is enjoyable; in addition to the human characters, medieval Tallinn plays an important role in the book. The town space is depicted credibly, colourfully and in great detail. The story is thrilling, taking the reader deep into a bygone era; the successful protagonist continues his adventures and detective work in Hargla’s next half-gothic crime stories.

Hargla’s next novel in a similar vein, Pharmacist Melchior and the Ghost of the Wheel Well, which deals with solving murders in medieval Tallinn, is more complicated and multilayered. The book is again set in the Tallinn of the early 14th century but, in this case, the author has here and there dropped some intertextual hints which will amuse readers who recognise them, relating the local cultural space to a wider European context. The mood of ... the Ghost of the Wheel Well is heavier than in the first Melchior novel. A mysterious ghost appears, and those who see it soon die. The different characters are enjoyable and, although the intrigue is not very smooth, the end ties everything skilfully together.

Hargla is a resourceful and witty narrator and the theme of medieval Tallinn is attractive. Hopefully, the smart pharmacist Melchior will continue his detective work. And perhaps, one fine day, genetic research will discover that some remote ancestor of Hercule Poirot once lived somewhere on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Text by Rutt Hinrikus

Estonian Literary Magazine No 1, 2011

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