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An orgy of Sex, Death and Politics.
This is another of some exceptional new books and authors that I've come across in the last few weeks. People who are familiar with my book reviews know that I become really excited when I find a new author and love to share them with like-minded readers. I came across this book in one of my favourite 2nd hand shops at just £1.50 and can't wait to get my hands on another one by the same author.
Which leads me into a short bio, for those that like to know the person behind the books. David Hewson is a British author, born in Yorkshire in 1953 and now living in Kent. He left school at just seventeen to become a cub reporter and eight years later he was writing for the Times. After a distinguished career in journalism, he eventually settled down to becoming a full-time writer, but not before writing several travel books as well as other novels.
"A Season for the Dead" is the first book in a series that features Detective Nic Costa and is set in modern-day Rome. As a travel writer, Hewson imbibes his books with a sense of reality that draws on the often macabre and seedy side of Rome. You can find photographs on his website that shows just where he has drawn some of his inspiration from.
An Unusual Plot.
I always find it difficult to know how far to go with the plot of a book, especially since I often get comments saying that I give too much away. However, this is so unusual that I think it does require a little more than the basic synopsis that made me pick it up.
Sara Farnese is at home in the quiet Vatican reading room, looking at ancient texts, when the silence is disturbed by a crazed man she knows slightly, carrying a bloody bag that contains something horrendous he wants her to see. In a nearby church a double murder has just taken place. The man waves a gun around, shots are fired and outside the territory of the Vatican, detective Luca Rossi and his rookie partner, Nic Costa are about to step over the jurisdiction of their beat to find out what is happening. For the Vatican premises are off-limits to all bar the elite, even when an innocent victim is shot.
Somewhere in the sweltering heat of Rome, a bizarre murder is enacted in exactly the same way as one of the early Christian martyrs. But the killer has only just started to choose his victims in a killing spree that will rock all of Rome by the sheer brutality and their links with the woman, Sara.
Nic becomes involved after the next victim turns up, another man linked to Sara, another horrendous killing that echoes yet another early Christian martyr. For her own protection he takes her to his family home, a farm on the outskirts of the city where his dying father is at least able to offer some protection. This is a side of Nic's life that his experienced partner, Rossi, hasn't seen. Yet the killings continue and now another player steps onto the stage. Cardinal Michael Denney, a corrupt man who is hiding briefly behind the walls of the Vatican...a man who is somehow linked to Sara as well. As Rome basks in the heat wave, tempers fray and would-be victims wonder if it will be their turn next, for the killer hasn't yet collected all his victims.
With such a story-line you would expect some strong characters and to some extent this is true. Sara is a young woman who was orphaned at a young age. A brilliant scholar with the morals of an alley-cat, her character should be strong, so why does she appear to be so placid?
The killer makes his entry fairly early in the book, though his motives are not revealed until near the end of the book.
Nic himself is a bundle of contradictions. The son of a once active communist, he is endearingly naïve at times, though stubborn and dogged in his pursuit of the truth. His partner, the world-weary Rossi knows more than he's letting on, a seasoned trooper who understands that some boundaries are there for his protection.
It's Michael Denney who stands out though for a good part of the book. A corrupt church official, marginally protected by his office, but time is running out for him. He's willing to sacrifice people to become free from his prison, the one person whose shady past is now under scrutiny. His goal, getting out of the Vatican and back to America without becoming butchered on the way.
Hewson's descriptions really bring Rome to light in a way I would not have thought possible in such a dark novel. I found it easy to see the winding streets, the dark alleys, the beauty of the many churches and the haunting pictures, many of them by the medieval artist Carvaggio. I could feel the history in almost every page as the killer re-enacts his murders in places which should be holy. Some of the murders are particularly gruesome and I would suggest this be given an eighteen rating and not left around where even teenagers could pick it up. Yet there is beauty in many of the words and a sense of the age old question of good against evil. Morality versus amorality. The author gives us his characters, poses some startling questions to them and also to us. That's what lifts this book out of the ordinary.
I read this in one long sitting and then read it two weeks later. Once for the story and again to pick up those nuances I invariably miss the first time around. It is a fast-paced book with enough of mystery and death to keep the most avid crime fan completely involved until the last page (474 pages).
I thought the way that Hewson uncovers corruption, both in the church and the politicians, was handled quite well, though it might be something that would upset a Catholic. Still, church corruption and secrecy is not a new thing. One thing about the plaudits for this book annoyed me. So many critics are apt to compare any book that involves the church or mystery/thrillers set around religion with "The Da Vinci Code." This has nothing to do with similar books. It's a book the author didn't plan on writing, but I, for one, am glad he did.
In one chapter Nic Costa is trying to explain why the painter, Cararvagio, was not so celebrated as other artists. In his biblical scenes he painted people as they were in that century. Sometimes cruel, his paintings invite the viewer to "be in the crowd."
I believe that David Hewson is asking us to do the same. Become a spectator, though without judgement or prejudice.
My copy was from a 2nd hand book-stall. This is available at £4.89 new from Amazon and from 14p used. It certainly earns a place on my bookshelf.
Author's website: www.davidhewson.com.
Thanks for reading.
©Lisa Fuller. February 2008.