“If werewolves existed, Willie, I would have seen one by now.”
“You have not seen England, sir, and it exists.”
I think for me, the most exciting part of the story was the fact that it is based on a true story. The Wolf Trial is the story of a sixteenth century serial killer, Peter Stumpp (Stumpf, in the book) – one of the first ever recorded accounts of a serial killer – who was believed to be a werewolf. When I learned this, I decided to read a little about the original Peter Stumpp before proceeding with the book. Terrible times, I tell you.
Neil Mackay has made a few minor changes to the story (for instance, in reality, Stumpp/Stumpf insisted that he was a werewolf acting under the orders of the devil), and his book follows a debate in which a lawyer and a priest (with the town being on the latter’s side) argue whether he is to be tried as a man or a werewolf. The lawyer, Paulus is a skeptic (see quote above) and an academic, whereas the priest, Fromme is a… well, a priest. The story is narrated by an 80-year old Willie, who was once Paulus’ assistance and who was present during the hunt and trial of Peter.
Mackay’s writing skills are noteworthy. I loved how atmospherically eerie this book was. The whole time I felt I was in some deep dark woods. It reminded me of the beginning of Dracula (if you recollect my review, that is the only part of Dracula that I enjoyed).
However, there are certain things that I did not like – such as the dialogue. The prologue made me think it was set in maybe early 1900s. Even in the rest of the book, the dialogue does not sit well with the image I have of the sixteenth century. Contrast this with, say, Murder at Cirey, which came out last year but is set in the eighteenth century. Perfect dialogues, and they add a lot to the atmosphere and the setting. Given that this book is already rich in terms of atmosphere, it would’ve truly benefited from better dialogue.
Another thing is, while it is understandable that a book about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence (I mean, obviously!), in The Wolf Trial, the violence does not quite blend in. What I mean is, it feels like it has been added to give it some sensationalism, as if the author thought of going a little over-the-top because this is a book about a (gasp!) werewolf, so there has to be some OTT violence. I’ve read up about the man’s crimes – horrifying. Mindnumbingly so. All the more reason to present it more clinically than dramatically.
Last, and most importantly, while Mackay has great writing skills and a great story to tell, there is something a bit “un-thrilling” about this thriller. It was not a compelling read, and there were times when I had to fight the urge to skim or speed-read or simply put it down.
All things said, it is commendable that Mackay used an account of the world’s first (known) serial killer and weaved a story out of it – I would have never learned of Stumpp/Stumpf of Germany otherwise.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from Freight Books/Netgalley. This review is honest and unbiased.