The Wolf Trial is billed as ‘Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose meets Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in a brilliant historical epic’. To paraphrase a quote from the film, Jerry Maguire, ‘you had me at Umberto’.
It’s a bold comparison, and a tall order for any book to match up to two of my favourite novels. I have to report, thankfully, that The Wolf Trial does not disappoint.
Inspired by the first ever documented account of a serial killer in the world history, when a local landowner, Peter Stumpf, was accused of murdering nearly seventy people in 16th century Germany, Neil Mackay’s novel is an extraordinary story told in a compelling way; sometimes as a reader you want to look away, or flick on a few pages – those are the ‘American Psycho’ sections – but you never do because, just like Ellis’ novel, the scenes of violence or descriptions of almost unimaginable depravity are not their gratuitously or for gratification (for reader or writer) but are absolutely central to the novel and what the author is saying.
There are similarities with Umberto Eco’s classic novel; the narrator is now an old man living in the original area of Glasgow University, in the city’s High Street district, who puts down on paper the story of The Wolf Trial, which he was part of as a young assistant to a lawyer sent to the German town of Bideburg where ‘the wolf’ was being held, having being caught in the act of killing and eating one of his victims.
The narrator’s boss, Paulus Melchior, is a lawyer tasked with prosecuting the case, and while he concludes that Stumpf is a human killer rather than a werewolf, and will be tried as such, that conclusion puts him at odds with the religious authorities who believe that Stumpf is in league with the Devil and want to convict him as a werewolf, and also execute his wife and children for their guilt by association
There are some scenes which are not for the squeamish, although Stumpf’s descriptions of his own murderous spree are nowhere near as shocking as those carried out by the ‘authorities’ in whatever guise they might be in – political, military or religious. The point is an obvious one – there is an apparent acceptance of state or Church-sanctioned murder, and in terms more grotesque than the killings carried out by a solitary serial killer. In the sixteenth century world of religious fanaticism, conflict and power, it was hard to accept that a fellow human being was capable of such acts – just as it is today – and there had to be other Satanic reasons for such barbarity, hence the serial killer wasn’t actually a human at all, but someone with the power to transform himself into a werewolf.
There is a section late on in the book which involves Stumpf’s wife and daughters recounting family folklore stories, which felt surplus to requirement and almost out of place with the pace of the rest of the narrative, but given the way the story builds again to a crescendo, it may be that the author, and reader, is getting a chance to take a breather before plunging into the dramatic conclusion.
Neil Mackay has written a great historical novel that is thrilling, thought-provoking, sometimes shocking but absolutely captivating.
The Wolf Trial by Neil Mackay is published by Freight Books and is out on April 21.