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The Alchemist's Pursuit    by Dave Duncan order for
Alchemist's Pursuit
by Dave Duncan
Order:  USA  Can
Ace, 2009 (2009)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Alchemist's Pursuit follows The Alchemist's Apprentice and The Alchemist's Code in Dave Duncan's fantastical mystery series set in an alternate 16th-century Venice with detectives reminiscent of Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. Like Wolfe, legendary alchemist/physician/astrologer/clairvoyant Maestro Nostradamus rarely stirs from home (the Barbolano palace in this case). His apprentice Alfeo Zeno (a scion of impoverished Venetian nobility) handles the details and brings witnesses to him when necessary.

This episode opens when Alfeo's girl-next-door, courtesan lover, the multi-faceted Violetta Vitale, hires his cranky (with rheumatism) master to find out who is targeting Venice's courtesans, many of whom are her friends. (Though Violetta accompanies Alfeo on many of his investigative forays, he worries this time that she also might become the killer's target.) In parallel, an ex-Senator, Sier Giovanni Gradenigo - who was once a state inquisitor - has something to say to Nostradamus on his deathbed, but Alfeo does not arrive in time. But he does discover that the dying patrician was concerned about the murder of a courtesan.

Alfeo learns that one of the victims received a note signed Honeycat just before her death, and that there was such a man, a patron of courtesans in Venice eight years before - the infamous Zorzi Michiel fled Venice after the murder of his father in the Basilica San Marco, and has a hefty price on his head. Despite being warned of by the Council of Ten, the Maestro and Alfeo look hard at the current Michiel family, and are hired by its matriarch to locate her son Zorzi. As always, Alfeo has many close shaves, but why does an unusual honey-colored cat intervene repeatedly to help him?

Everyone lies and there are even more wheels within wheels than usual, but our alchemist duo persist to discover the truth of both the recent killings and the cold case. The series is rich in historical color - for example, incorporating the tradition of the War of Fists on Venetian bridges in the mystery this time - and I highly recommend The Alchemist's Pursuit to both fantasy and historical mystery fans as an engrossing and excellent read.

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