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Back in 2002, Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti shocked Italy with ''Imprimatur'', a historical fiction novel which cast aspersions of the behaviour of past Popes. Despite being a very well researched and well-written mystery, it was boycotted in Italy, although it proved popular in other parts of the world. However, the lack of recognition in their home country meant that the follow up that such a good story deserved has been seven years in the making.
Set seventeen years after the events of ''Imprimatur'', our apprentice and narrator from that story has moved on and is now a loving husband and father. Many of the characters from that story have passed into memory, but suddenly Abbot Atto Melani returns to the apprentice's life. He is staying at the villa of Cardinal Spada, where the apprentice is often employed, for a wedding. But whilst he is in Rome, he hopes to cast some influence on the conclave to elect the next Pope, given that the incumbent is seriously ill and not expected to live for long.
Soon after his arrival, however, things start happening to Abbot Melani and the apprentice, not often welcome ones. Melani has a book he has written stolen, which could put him in an awkward position should it fall into the wrong hands as it could expose him as a French spy. As before, he pressgangs the apprentice to assist and document his actions during this period. Complicating this are the potential arrival of a long lost love and the question of who will inherit the Spanish throne, as the current King, like the Pope, is very ill. Melani once again has as many fingers in as many pies as possible and borrows other people's fingers when his own prove insufficient.
Monaldi and Sorti again provide a deeply layered mystery, with a huge amount going on. There are so many aspects to the story, some of which at first glance don't always seem to be related to others. Once the picture becomes clearer, however, it is apparent that most of the characters have a hand in many events. As before, the book draws on a huge cast of characters from Kings and Cardinals to gardeners and common criminals.
All the elements that made ''Imprimatur'' such a thrilling read are again present. There is a constantly twisting mystery, with enough false clues and blind alleys that it would take Sherlock Holmes a while to get to the bottom of it. There are so many diverse elements that even though the pace of the story is quite slow, there is enough to keep the reader interested and to make the book feel a lot faster paced than it actually is.
The cast of characters are again wonderfully drawn. Even more so than before there are a group of very similar people in the Cardinals who resemble each other quite closely in their interests and ambitions. Even here, Monaldi and Sorti manage to make them all distinctive enough that it is rare to get them mixed up, even though they are mostly relatively minor characters and this attention to detail around the sides of the main story is rare. With the main characters, this is even more noticeable, as they all have different ways of speaking and acting that it is immediately obvious who is the focus of any line in the story, such is the detail they are fleshed out in.
As with the first book, ''Secretum'' appeals on a number of different levels. Once again, there is a wonderfully convoluted mystery that will appeal to fans of that genre, with enough action to keep thriller fans interested, even if it may be a little slow of pace for such readers. Fans of character-based stories will love the case here and once again there is a minor comic turn thanks to Caesar Augustus, a parrot who provides a neat and rather sweet little twist towards the end. There's even the addition of a love story that wasn't present before and the historical proofs that made the first seem so authentic are once again present and will add interest for history buffs, although once again they feel superfluous and quite heavy going to me.
Despite all this, ''Secretum'' just doesn't quite manage to spark my interest in the way that ''Imprimatur'' did and I can't quite figure out why. The story is as well written and researched as the earlier book and the characters equally well drawn, but the mystery that forms the basis of the story doesn't seem quite so exciting this time around. Whilst there are some exciting set pieces here, much of the story seems to be spent arriving at them, rather than having them fit in nicely as a natural part of the investigations into the mystery.
This makes the whole thing feel a little more ponderous and whilst the book is more readable than such a dry subject may suggest, it's not as much so as its predecessor. Part of the issue here may also be that the relationships between the characters are less cordial this time around, as many of them are pulling in different directions for their own ends, rather than having a common cause. Whereas before the story was set in the relatively enclosed space of an inn, here the whole of Rome is available and the space serves only to create distance, not to widen the scope.
This is not to say that ''Secretum'' is without merit, as it's still a good book in its own right, it just pales a little in obvious comparison with the authors' previous and similar and, in this case, superior work. But for fans of well-written historical fiction, Monaldi and Sorti once again provide a well-researched and entertaining mystery, even if the cheapest price of £3.75 from the Amazon Marketplace is still a little too much to pay and borrowing the book would be a better idea.
This is a slightly amended version of a review that has previously appeared under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk