The Ludwig Conspiracyby Oliver Potzsch, Anthea Bell (Translator)
Ludwig II, the Fairy-tale King of Bavaria, is today remembered for his beautiful castles—popular tourist destinations that inspired the Disney Castle, but whose origins were much more fantastical than anything Disney could dream up. Also known as the Mad King, Ludwig was deposed in 1886 after being declared insane by doctors who had never met him. He promptly
Ludwig II, the Fairy-tale King of Bavaria, is today remembered for his beautiful castles—popular tourist destinations that inspired the Disney Castle, but whose origins were much more fantastical than anything Disney could dream up. Also known as the Mad King, Ludwig was deposed in 1886 after being declared insane by doctors who had never met him. He promptly died—mysteriously drowned in waist-deep water—his eccentric castles his only legacy.
Master of historical suspense Oliver Pötzsch brings the Mad King back to life in The Ludwig Conspiracy. An encoded diary by one of Ludwig’s confidants falls into the hands of modern-day rare book dealer Steven Lukas, who soon realizes that the diary may bring him more misery than money. Others want the diary as well—and they will kill to get it. Lukas teams up with a beautiful art detective, Sara Lengfeld, to investigate each of Ludwig’s three famous castles for clues to crack the diary’s code as mysterious thugs and Ludwig’s fanatical followers chase them at every step. Just what in the diary could be so explosive?
Combining contemporary mystery and a gripping historical saga and centered on an ingenious code that can be cracked only with a combination of modern computers and nineteenth-century texts, The Ludwig Conspiracy is a bold new thriller from the best-selling author of The Hangman’s Daughter series.
"Pötzsch makes clever use of Bavaria’s equivalent of the Kennedy assassination in this excellent stand-alone . . . Pötzsch’s sophisticated plotting and good use of a real-life historical puzzle place this far ahead of most Da Vinci Code wannabes." -- Publishers Weekly, boxed and starred review
"Intriguing, entertaining." -- Kirkus Reviews
"Historical mystery fans and conspiracy theorists will find much to enjoy in this bizarre tale." -- Library Journal
"This gripping thriller brings together the present and the past with high-action adventure in a bold, entertaining storyline." -- Shepherd Express
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.46(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.41(d)
Read an Excerpt
Steven Lukas sat at the scratched old mahogany desk in his antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s Westend district and watched the water in his teapot slowly turn brown. The aromatic fragrance of bergamot and orange peel rose to his nostrils. He gave the tea infuser another minute, then took it out and placed it carefully on a saucer beside a couple of large disintegrating tomes.
As a small cloud of vapor rose from the teacup, the bookseller let his eyes wander around his small domain. He very much hoped not to be disturbed for the next few hours. Outside, the dull gray of an October afternoon reigned, plunging the little shop, which was full of nooks and crannies, into dim twilight. The bookshelves up to the ceiling cast shadows like mighty trees; in the back part of the shop, beside the door leading to the stockroom and the large archive in the cellar, stood a 1950s brass lamp, casting warm yellow light on the desk. The place smelled of tea, leather, and old paper. The only sound was the ticking of an old nineteenth-century grandfather clock that Steven had bought in better times at a Munich antiques fair.
Steven sighed with pleasure and turned to the book on top of the stack to his right. This leather-bound folio volume was his latest acquisition. Carefully, he opened the discolored brown cover and began reverently leafing through it. Before him lay one of the early editions of the Grimms’ Tales, dating from 1837. The illustrations of giants, dwarves, bold princes and soulful princesses were smudged here and there, and some of the pages had been torn, but even so, the folio volume was in very good condition. Steven guessed that it would be worth five thousand euros, if not more. He had found it at an estate sale in the upmarket Bogenhausen district of Munich, along with a few crates of other books from the attic of an old lady who had recently died, and he had pressed three hundred-euro bills into the hand of her startled nephew. A Philistine—the nephew had taken the money, not even wondering what was special about the book. Obviously paper meant something to him only when it had denominations printed on it.
Steven smiled as he spooned brown sugar into his tea. Buying that book had been a real stroke of luck. In theory, it would allow him to pay the rent on the shop for the next six months. In reality, he knew he wouldn’t be able to part with the Grimm. Old books were like a drug to Steven; the mere smell of yellowing paper made him feel weak. He loved the rustle of the pages, the firm feel of painted parchment or printed handmade paper between his fingertips. It was a sense of happiness that had accompanied him since childhood, and the feeling couldn’t be compared to anything else.
Dreamily, the bookseller leafed through the Grimm, admiring the hand-colored engravings. How many generations had held this book in their hands? How many grandfathers had read its stories to their grandchildren? Steven stirred his tea and immersed himself in a world of castles, wolves, witches, and good fairies. He had been born in the United States, in Massachusetts, where people still thought of Germany as a country of dark forests, castles, and the romantic banks of the Rhine. As a child, little Steven had liked the idea of that, but grown-up Steven had discovered that the Germans cared more about expressways and shopping malls than dark, mysterious legends. The old, fairy-tale Germany existed only in the dreams of American and Japanese tourists these days.
And in books.
The shrill sound of the doorbell stirred him from his thoughts. Annoyed, Steven looked up and then sighed. Obviously it wasn’t going to be as peaceful a weekend as he’d hoped.
“Frau Schultheiss,” he murmured, sipping his tea. “To what do I owe the honor?”
An elderly lady with a pinched expression and combed-back hair had marched into the shop as if she owned it. Now she took off the sunglasses that she wore in spite of the fall rain outside. Small, icy gray eyes flashed at the bookseller, but she at least tried to produce a smile.
“You know exactly what I’m here about, Herr Lukas. I thought we could talk about your price. My husband can come up with another two thousand euros if you—”
“Frau Schultheiss,” Steven interrupted, pointing to the walls of shelves overflowing with books, old Jugendstil journals, and framed engravings. “This place is like my home. Would you move out of your nice apartment just because someone offered you a few thousand euros?”
Frau Schultheiss looked disparagingly at the once-valuable but now-scratched cherrywood shelves. The varnish had peeled off here and there. Dust had settled on them, and they sagged in places under the weight of the books. In the corridor, a few crates stacked unsteadily on top of one another held newly acquired treasures waiting to be put on display. Steven’s unwelcome visitor, still with that iron smile, shrugged her shoulders.
“This is not an apartment but, if I may say so, a rather untidy bookshop.”
“Not just a bookshop, an antiquarian bookshop,” Steven corrected her. “If you know the difference.”
Frau Schultheiss frowned. “Very well, then, an antiquarian bookshop. But not living quarters, anyway. Or if it is, not in a state that I would care to live in.” She stopped, as if realizing that this was not the cleverest way to conduct negotiations.
“Herr Lukas,” she went on, more mildly, “when did you last sell anything? Two weeks ago? A month ago? The Westend is not a district for bookshops these days. Maybe it was once. But now people in this part of town want to buy shoes and clothes, and then drink a nice latte macchiato. The fashion boutique I’m planning, with an integrated café and lounge, would fit in here just perfectly. And I don’t understand how you, as an American . . .”
“My father was American, Frau Schultheiss,” Steven said. “I’ve told you that a thousand times. I’m as German as you or Chancellor Merkel. Anyway, what, in your opinion, should an American be doing? Selling hamburgers and donuts?”
“You misunderstand me,” Frau Schultheiss said. “I only meant . . .”
“If you’re interested in eighteenth-century engravings or literature from the Enlightenment, you’re welcome to look around,” Steven said brusquely. “Otherwise I’ll ask you to please leave.”
Frau Schultheiss compressed her lips, which were thin enough anyway, then turned without a word and went out. A last chime of the doorbell, and Steven was alone again.
The bookseller took another sip of his tea, which by now was getting unpleasantly cool. Frau Schultheiss just wouldn’t let it be! She’d already offered him eight thousand euros to give notice to his landlord, old Seitzinger, and leave the premises available for her boutique. Kurt Seitzinger used to have his joinery workshop in these rooms, but he had retired twenty years ago. At the time, just as Steven finished studying literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, he had been entranced by the shop at once; he still thought he could smell the wood, the wood shavings, and the glue. He had never regretted his decision to open his antiquarian bookshop in the Westend district. But that had been at a time when it was still a genuine working-class district with a high proportion of foreigners and students among its inhabitants; now boutiques, trendy bars, sushi takeouts, and hairdressing salons were shooting up like colorful toadstools. The Westend was hip, and his antiquarian bookshop seemed to belong to a forgotten epoch. Even the way Steven dressed seemed old-fashioned compared to the people living here. Other men of his age wore tight-fitting sweatshirts printed with hip logos or band names, paired with sneakers and baseball caps. Steven preferred tweed and corduroy, combining them in suits that, together with his graying, neatly combed hair and reading glasses, made him look like an impoverished British country gentleman. In a Scottish castle, he would look like the rightful heir; here, he sometimes felt twenty years older than he really was. Only a few months earlier, he had quietly celebrated his fortieth birthday. He didn’t fit in with his times. He preferred the company of very old books to that of most people, and on most days, he was perfectly happy if the store remained empty of customers.
Sighing, Steven rose from his mahogany desk and wandered around the little shop into which he had put so much of his heart—and so much of his money—for twenty years. Lovingly, he stroked the spines of individual books, straightening one here or there, putting copies gone astray back in their proper places. Finally he began emptying the crates from the estate of the old lady in Bogenhausen and putting the books in the few open spaces on the shelves. Among the books he had bought were an 1888 Baedeker travel guide to Belgium, an eighteenth-century work on chess, and Shelton’s standard work on shorthand, Tachygraphy, in one of the later editions—treasures, all of them. Whether he would ever sell them was another question.
On one point at least Frau Schultheiss was right: business was going badly, in fact very badly. Not that it had ever really gone well, but until now Steven hadn’t minded that so long as he could rummage around in flea markets, libraries, and other antiquarian bookshops to his heart’s content. But now the once-handsome inheritance left by his parents was exhausted, and he had to turn his mind to one of the least edifying aspects of human existence: earning money.
When people did come into the shop, most of them were just passersby who didn’t want to wait out in the rain for the next bus, or who hoped to buy a cheap Perry Rhodan or the latest Dan Brown. Not to mention drunks visiting Oktoberfest and looking for a public toilet.
The distinguished old gentleman with glasses and an ivory walking stick that morning, however, had been different. He had shown a great deal of interest in Steven’s life in the antiquarian book trade, and he had asked him many questions about an early copy of the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Experts considered particularly valuable the rare work that Steven had acquired only recently.
But knowledgeable as he was, the man had seemed to Steven slightly distracted—indeed, almost as if he were being hunted. His hands had been nervously clutching a package done up with gray wrapping paper and string, obviously a fairly large book. When Steven mentioned it to him, the man just smiled and whispered something that made no sense.
The royal line is at stake . . .
He had also been intrigued by the stranger’s nervous glances. Several times, the man had looked through the display window as if expecting something to happen. When Steven went into the stockroom behind the shop for a few minutes to fetch the Pepys diaries, he came back to find that the old gentleman had simply disappeared without so much as a goodbye.
The memory made Steven smile.
Oddballs and old fools, he thought. No one else comes into my shop anymore. If I don’t watch out, I’ll be turning into an oddball myself. Maybe I already am?
He went on clearing the crate, distributing books around the appropriate shelves by subject, climbing up a narrow ladder again and again, and humming the theme of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.
Suddenly he stopped.
Level with his head, in between an old, leather-bound Bible and an antique edition of Molière’s works, there was a large tome, almost as wide as a man’s hand, that he had never seen before. He took the book off the shelf and saw, to his surprise, that what looked like a folio volume wasn’t paper at all, but was made of cherrywood glued together. Only the back, made to look like the spine of a book, was leather. The fake book seemed to be one of those camouflaged containers in which, back in the old days, good, respectable middle-class citizens used to hide their bottles of liquor or their cigars in the family library. Steven was reminded of the kind of small treasure chest where little boys sometimes kept their marbles, penknives, and Lego figurines. Surely he’d had a very similar little box for his treasures when he was a child.
Feeling curious, he opened the little box and suddenly sensed an odd tingling that he couldn’t explain. Briefly, everything went dark before his eyes, and he almost fell off the ladder. It was as if a misty hand were reaching out to touch him. Then he had himself back under control. Only an acrid, almost burning taste was left clinging to his palate.
What the hell was that? Some kind of aroma that I don’t tolerate? The smell of some varnish or something? Or have I turned allergic to something, just like that?
Carefully, Steven climbed down the last few rungs and looked inside the box. It was lined with dark fabric and had a musty smell. Inside, there were a few faded photographs and a lock of black hair tied with a silk ribbon—as well as a handsomely designed little book. Bound in blue velvet, adorned with ivory ornamentation, it looked like an enchanted book of spells. Steven traced the outline of a knight with a sword who seemed to be riding on a swan, stroked the blue velvet of the binding, and ran his fingertips over the intarsia work of white flowers and leaves. When he blew into the little treasure chest, a cloud of dust flew up; the smell of it made him dizzy again.
Once again, he felt a misty hand reach out for him; he closed his eyes and opened them again. His throat was suddenly dry, as if he’d been up all night drinking. Steven shook himself and tried to concentrate.
Don’t be silly; pull yourself together. It’s only an old box, that’s all.
The photos were the first thing he saw. They seemed to have been taken in the last third of the nineteenth century, and in matte gray colors and various positions they showed a young man of about thirty sitting on an adjustable wooden stool. Beside him stood an older, rather portly gentleman, wearing a black coat; in some of the pictures his left hand was resting almost caressingly on the younger man’s shoulder. He looked like a kindly giant. Did the dry lock of hair in the little box come from one of the men? They both had dark hair, anyway.
Thoughtfully, Steven put the pictures and the lock of hair back in the container, then focused again on the book with its valuable ivory intarsia work. When he began turning the pages, he stopped short in surprise. The fine handmade paper was covered not with letters and words, but with curious scribbles and hieroglyphics, like some kind of secret code. Could this really be an old book of magic spells? Steven’s heart beat faster. He knew that amazing sums were offered for grimoires, as such things were called. Self-styled “white witches” and others with a yen for esotericism competed to get their hands on them. The title page, however, did seem to be legible. Frowning, Steven took out his reading glasses and inspected the faded writing.
Memoirs of Theodor Marot, Assistant to Dr. Max Schleiss von Loewenfeld.
Steven rubbed his eyes. He had never seen either the book or its container before. Or had he? A strange sense of familiarity passed through him. For the life of him, though, he couldn’t remember how the little box came to be in his possession. It hadn’t been part of the estate left by the old lady from Bogenhausen; he would certainly have noticed such an unusual item. And he had been through all his purchases from flea markets over the last few weeks, classifying them one by one and keeping a written record. So how did this little treasure chest come to be in his shop?
He picked up the photographs again. Suddenly he was sure he’d seen a picture of the gigantic older man in them somewhere before. He hadn’t looked quite so portly, but the gentle eyes, the beard, and the full head of black hair were the same. He made a genuinely imposing, almost regal impression.
Suddenly Steven stopped dead.
Was it possible?
Thoughtfully, he tapped one of the photographs. Carrying the little box, he hurried into the stockroom behind the shop, where the books from flea markets and estate sales that he had already classified lay in stacks, waiting to be sorted and placed on the crowded shelves. He rummaged busily around in the cartons, in search of a book that he had bought quite cheaply when he found it only a few days before at a stall in the Munich Olympiad Park, among trashy novels and wartime stories. At last he found it at the bottom of the third carton that he searched.
The book, which was falling apart, was a treatise on the royal house of Bavaria written early in the twentieth century. It featured a whole series of heroic paintings of members of the Wittelsbach dynasty, beginning with Maximilian I Joseph, and ending with Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria, who had to abdicate at the end of the First World War in his senile old age. Steven leafed quickly through the book until he found the right picture at last. There it was! A handsome young man with black hair looked out of it at him. He had no beard yet, but he had the same hairstyle and the faraway look that was in his eyes until the time of his mysterious death. He wore a blue coat with a white ermine cloak over it.
Steven smiled. No doubt about it, the portly giant in the photograph was none other than King Ludwig II, the Fairy-tale King. He must have been one of the best-known of all Germans, and his youthful portrait adorned beer mugs, T-shirts, and postcards all over Germany.
Steven compared the painting in the book with the photograph in his hand. Judging by the king’s appearance, the photo must have been taken in his later years. But there was no question—the little box really did contain photographs of the world-famous Bavarian monarch, probably taken shortly before his death. Maybe even still unpublished? Steven knew that in certain circles, one could ask a high price for such things. All of a sudden the rent problem seemed to retreat into the distance.
At that moment, the bell at the front of the shop announced another visitor coming in.
Irritated, Steven put the book and the photographs back in the little box and placed it on a shelf. Then he left the stockroom and went back into the shop. Couldn’t he ever be left in peace? It was seven in the evening already. Who on earth could want to buy something from him so near to closing time? Or was it Frau Schultheiss again with another offer?
“We’re really closed,” he began brusquely. “If you’d like to come back tomorrow morning . . .”
As he took a closer look at the man, he knew at once that this wasn’t one of the usual Perry Rhodan customers. The stranger was around sixty, with sparse gray hair, an old-fashioned pair of pince-nez perched on his nose, and he wore a suit in the Bavarian style of the kind favored by elderly gentlemen from the country complete with lederhosen. He was tall and thin, with a high forehead; his whole bearing suggested that he wasn’t used to having his authority questioned.
“I won’t take up much of your time, I promise you,” the man said in a gruff voice, inspecting Steven through his pince-nez. “My interest is only in very special literature.”
A slight shudder ran through Steven. “What kind of literature do you mean?” he asked, smiling faintly. “If you’re looking for typical Bavarian writers like Ludwig Thoma or Oskar Maria Graf, then—”
“I am interested in eyewitness accounts from the time of King Ludwig the Second,” the stranger interrupted. “Do you have anything of that nature, Herr . . . ?”
“Lukas. Steven Lukas.”
Steven bravely went on smiling, but he was feeling uneasier with every moment spent under the other man’s gaze. The newcomer seemed to be scrutinizing him closely, as if he didn’t trust him for some reason. Then he looked hard at the bookshelves. He was obviously searching them for something.
Eyewitness accounts from the time of King Ludwig II . . .
Steven forced himself to appear calm, showing nothing on the surface. But his mind was working furiously. Could this really be just coincidence, or did the stranger know about the photographs? Had he come to get hold of the little treasure chest?
“You hesitate,” the man said, examining him curiously through his pince-nez. “You do have something.”
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t. But if you’d like to give me your contact information, I’ll be happy to let you know if I get hold of anything.”
Steven had come to this decision in a fraction of a second. He didn’t trust the stranger; the man’s whole demeanor unsettled him. It reminded him of the self-satisfied manner of certain Bavarian politicians who were used to getting their way no matter what.
But you won’t get anything from me.
“Are you quite sure you have nothing of that nature?” the man in the Bavarian suit asked again.
“Perfectly sure. If I can have your telephone number . . .”
The tall stranger gave him a thin-lipped smile. “That won’t be necessary. We’ll come back to you.” He nodded a goodbye and then went out. Darkness had fallen.
Steven felt as if an icy wind had entered the shop, covering all the books with hoarfrost. Shivering, he went over to the window, but the man had already disappeared.
Fine rain was pattering against the panes.
Meet the Author
OLIVER PÖTZSCH, born in 1970, has worked for years as a scriptwriter for Bavarian television. He is a descendant of one of Bavaria’s leading dynasties of executioners. Pötzsch lives in Munich with his family.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews