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One’s initial reaction to a crime novel based on Mozart’s death may well be scepticism. However, I have to say straight away that nearly everything in Matt Rees’s novel is convincing – imaginative, yes, but also plausible. This ring of truth is largely due to his admirable research.

Many contemporary characters appear – Constanze, with children and dog, Stadler, Baron van Swieten, Prince Lichnowsky, Maria Theresia von Paradis (Rees spells it with the less common, penultimate ‘e’), Schikaneder, etc, and the less familiar Hofdemel widow, Police Minister Pergen, Gieseke, and others. Vienna simmered with intrigue at this time, and the ruling class’ fears in the wake of the French revolution were heightened by the presence of freemasonry. In the author’s note, Rees explains how he has ‘altered the histories of several characters’, but this is no cause for alarm. Rees also re-learnt the piano. All musical references – except the mention of Stadler’s ‘bass clarinet’ – are accurate, but the author’s unconvincing claim to have ‘laid out the novel in terms of one of Wolfgang’s piano sonatas’ would have been best omitted. Also, Rees’s habit of writing sentences without verbs may irritate some.

Quite often one may learn more about a composer (or other historical figure) from a well-written novel than from a biography. I was reminded of James Hamilton-Patterson’s excellent Gerontius – an account of Elgar’s trip down the Amazon. Readers may well find themselves being drawn into Mozart’s world much more than they would on reading most biographies.

There are some nice poetic conceits here, such as Mozart’s music driving out a woman’s fits just as her biblical namesake Maria Magdalena had her demons cast out by Jesus. Among the lovely similes are ‘Paradies’s [blind] eyes rotated like buttons in the sockets of a girl’s doll’ and ‘the Danube fog … dampened my skin like a loveless kiss’.

There are surprises right up until the end of this page-turner, as the plot becomes ever more involved. I enjoyed this engaging, skilful novel and was reluctant to leave these characters and their world.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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