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I am astounded that there isn't any book reviews on the works of David Hewson, surely one of best crime writers in the genre. Born in Yorkshire in 1953, Hewson has been a Sunday Times journalist since the age of 17, an author of many travel books and the best-selling author of the Nic Costa series of which the novel 'The Fallen Angel' is his ninth in the series and long awaited. For a short while he wrote a few stand-alone books which have been well-received, but the Nic Costa series is his best in many of his fan's eyes so this return is both timely and is being hailed as probably his best book yet. But for those of you who haven't heard of him I'm going to add a short background to the series that I feel appropriate to anyone reading his books for the first time.
Nic Costa is one of a team of policemen and detectives in the fictitional 'Questura' or police station based in the heart of Rome. He's approximately in his late thirties and is a rising star of the team, which includes Leo Falcone, Gianni Peroni, both senior detectives and Teresa Lupo, the pathologist. These are the basic team he works with and readers of Hewson's books will be familiar with these names, much like the teams that surround other characters in books by such writers as Val McDermid and Kathy Reichs.
The first book in the series is 'A Season for the Dead' which created a whole new world where the seedy side of Rome mixes with the tourist's Rome to critical acclaim for the author. While you can read his books as a standalone, it's a good idea to start with his first book, which although a bit gory, established Hewson as a serious contender to such writers as Dan Brown and Sam Bourne and even started to surpass them with subsequent books. The icing on the cake for me is that Hewson is British and we have so few good writers in this field, it's a pity he is not more feted. Indeed he has fans in fellow writers such as Peter James, Jeffrey Deaver, Linwood Barclay, Tess Gerritsen and many more.
Rome is sweltering in a late August heat and tempers among the detectives are running high when a seemingly random accident happens with Nic Costa nearby and although on holiday, he starts to question whether the accident is what it appears to be. The victim is a British academic, Malise Gabriel, who lives in a run-down ghetto apartment near to the center of Rome and close by where another victim died some four hundred years before, but by the hands of the then pope. Gabriel falls from some scaffolding to his death and is found first by his seventeen-year-old daughter, Mina, who is naturally distraught. The circumstances look suspicious to Costa, even before the son, Robert, flees the scene of the accident, supposedly because he has a stash of drugs in his room. The mother, Cecilia is at a concert so the only witness is Mina and she isn't telling all she knows.
Soon Nic manages to get his team interested in the possibility of murder and is recalled from his holiday to take on the main investigation, despite his colleagues' doubts. Nic becomes obsessed by the case and the similarity between the girl, Mina and the tragic story of the sixteenth century noblewoman, Beatrice Cenci, who was part of a murder plot against her abusive father, hence the fallen Angel of the title. It will take all his ingenuity to persuade his team that the circumstances warrant deeper probing and meanwhile his new love interest, the ex-sister of a convent, Agata Graziano, is going to Malta suspending their burgeoning affair.
History versus Present.
Hewson has taken the dark and seedy side of Rome and one of Rome's many legends to bring to life a tale that grips the reader from the start. He has done this before but in this book the co-incidence is much more subtle and believable, with none of the high drama that started the series and perhaps put some readers off since the debut was around the time that writers like Dan Brown were capitalizing on the interest people had in mysterious plots based around religious themes. If I said that Hewson is a writer of intellectual thrillers it could be taken as in the same class as Brown, but he manages to escape that typecasting and emerges as a writer that merges past and present seamlessly with an edge of interest in the characters to start a series similar to top thriller writers.
I won't go into much detail to spoil the plot, but the legend of Beatrice is one that is real although there are some gaps in the historical timeline. It's interesting that the legend was so intriguing it was written about by Alexander Dumas, Nathaniel Hawthorne and even the poet Shelley. Beatrice's death was bloody and brutal, a feature of the barbarity of the then Pope. In linking the possible abuse of Mina to that of Beatrice, Hewson gives his characters a greater appeal and the possibility of Roman justice becoming more in tune with the times. Hewson does this really well with all his novels, introducing the reader to a society that believes more in justice than it's past iniquities. He brings to life a Rome that seethes with malice, the turmoil of drug taking, drink and debauchery on a scale of the mafia but without the mention of it. Never has Rome seemed darker or more sinister and utterly believable.
While the plot is excellent and keeps the pace going on a continuous level, the characters remain true throughout the narrative. Even by reading one book alone you can get under the skin of the characters and come to love or loathe them. Hewson's characters are likeable but also fallible, realistic and human with their own quirks that make them so memorable. You cannot fail to become interested in their individual stories and how they got to become either the main characters or the villains of the plot. There is just enough tension between colleagues that you can pick up the background to the team in one book, though it does lose something without knowing the characters better. Still, it's the mark of a good author who can interest the reader into getting to know the people better. So I'll allow myself a brief rundown.
Nic Costa is in his thirties, a rising star of the Questura and a good detective. Sometimes he is too idealistic, a legacy from his late parents and his communist father in particular, a fact he has to live up to.
Leo Falcone is his mentor, a man Nic respects but also is frequently annoying, as he likes to go his own way. He keeps some secrets and a tendency to altruism that he hides can spring surprises. .
Gianni Peroni is another senior officer and has to curb Nic's enthusiasm at times. An old-style detective who gets things done. He is much on a par with such detectives as Morse, being more restraining to Nic's impulsiveness.
Teresa Lupo is excellent as the pathologist with an attitude that most readers will identify with. I'm not really sure why so many pathologists are women but I don't knock it.
The victim of the story is Mina, the young girl who seems so angelic but is she hiding secrets? Robert is a drug pusher who might be a victim as well, though with this family anything is suspect. Cecilia the mother is almost as suspect as the villains of the story, yet is she involved in her husband's death or just another causality? What about the victim, Malise? Was the death accidental or is Nic right to suspect the whole family of covering up family secrets?
I loved this book and agree with the critics that this is probably Hewson's best book to date. In the past he's used old legends to great effect but sometimes they are a little too co-incidental. In this book he balances this expertly, showing a love and knowledge of Rome's hidden treasures to bring a touch of magic to his writing. I've read many comments on how Hewson brings Rome alive to them, but since I've never been to Italy I can only say I think I've been there with each book I've read. I particularly love the mention of the painters as I love the Old Masters and although I've not seen many in real life, the photos and postcards I've seen capture the imagination. One of Nic's passions is the work of Caravaggio, who depicted the saints as suffering on canvas with realism. I can only say that Hewson does the same.
Just in case it isn't obvious, this book and series is suitable for adults only and both sexes equally though it's nice to review a book that is read by men.
My book was from the library, but I hope to add this to my collection to read again. You can buy it on Amazon for £6.85. There are only ten new available at present with one used at £4.89. I think I'm not the only fan.
Thanks for reading.