A crime novel is often a vehicle for describing people and/or places. The ones that are set in familiar or iconic locations are usually the latter: crime readers relish Thorne's London, Rebus's Edinburgh and of course all these Italy-based, English-written crime stories by the likes of Magdalen Nabb, Donna Leon and, not least, David Hewson.
In "The Seventh Sacrament" detectives Nic Costa (young, optimistic, personable) and Gianni Peroni (older, gruffer, bigger) and their boss Leo Falcone (the only one of the three with a developed character) are back in Rome after their exile in Venice and are investigating a series of murders. The murders originate ultimately in events of 14 years ago, when an archaeologist's son disappeared in mysterious circumstances involving 6 students trying to re-enact an old ritual in a subterranean labyrinth of a newly discovered Mithrean temple.
Rarely for a crime novel, we know who committed the currently investigated crime pretty much from the beginning, we also know - roughly - why. What we don't know is how it all ties up to the events of the past and what is behind it: because, as befits a mystery novel (and particularly one with a strong operatic streak), certainly not everything is as it seems.
"The Seventh Sacrament" is a pretty compelling read, with pace, suspense, cliff-hangers in all the right places and multiple points of view which are easy to follow but make for added interest too. It's also decently written, without any major grating in dialogue or description.
This is the fifth book in the Costa and Peroni series but can easily be read as a stand-alone novel. I haven't read the first four and had no difficulty in connecting to the characters and following the story.
Of the main players, Costa, Peroni and Falcone are all there, complemented by Teresa Lupo the pathologist (definitely my favourite character in the novel) and a new agente, Rosa Prabakaran, an educated, intelligent but still a rather inexperienced woman of Indian origin. There is a bit of differentiation between the main players, but overall "The Seventh Sacrament" is not a character-driven novel, at least not on the side of the law. There is a bit more depth on the side of the baddies, where the figure of Professor Barmante looms large and rather frighteningly mad.
For those who take their crime novels seriously, the plot is what would probably fail "The Seventh Sacrament": it's a testament to the writer's talent that something as preposterous as an archeologist obsessed with long-lost religious cult and its underground places of worship and thus driven to madness and murder can be taken at face value and accepted as an action engine. The denounment is even more contrived than the majority of the plot; and I though it was verging on unnecessary: although it allows for a resolution which is a bit more merciful to the main characters.
For those who hunt for meaningful themes even in their escapist fare, "The Seventh Sacrament" can provide some inspiration to think about authority (in few cleverly subtle strands, the problem of authority is psychologically very important in the novel) and fatherhood (and how the two can mix, connect and interplay in the same relationship).
The description of Rome is, however, the main attraction of "The Seventh Sacrament" and here Hewson does really well. It's sensual, atmospheric and it brings the city to life in an admirable way. One can almost touch the stone, smell the damp dark passages, see the pale, dirty winter light. For those needing to know where their detectives move, there is also a map. Those who have been to Rome even once should recognise the city Hewson's describing.
There are also few moments of true, monstrous brilliance involving horse slaughterhouses and flatworms amongst other things: drain and cave systems under cities are generally a rich source of such imagery and Hewson makes good use of this potential.
At first, I wasn't that impressed with "The Seventh Sacrament": it read like a decent but not extraordinary novel. As it progressed, though, I felt increasingly compelled and enjoyed the darker and increasingly more complicated spectacle more, though the resolution was a little disappointing. I was wavering somewhere between 3 and 4 stars but as it's well written and I am tempted to read the other novels in the series, I've settled on 4 and would recommend this one to fans of police procedurals and in particular the foreign, atmospheric ones.
Pan Books paperback: 474 pages
This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk.
'There's an entire underground city down there ...houses and temples, entire streets. I talked to a couple of the cavers Leo called in. They hero-worshipped Giorgio. The man had been to places the rest of them could only dream about.' Giorgio Bramante, a Roman archaeology professor, was master of the hidden world beneath the earth until the day he lost his young son, Alessio, to a group of students intent on re-creating a centuries-old ritual to a long-banished god. His rage knew no bounds and, in a frenzy, he beat one of the students to death.Released from prison fourteen years later, Giorgio is bent upon a terrifying revenge on all those he blames for the loss of his son. Inspector Leo Falcone, a member of the original investigating team, is one of his targets. And Nic Costa, watching Falcone move relentlessly into the man's merciless grip, realizes the answer must lie in solving a cold case that, like the forgotten Alessio Bramante, has long been regarded as dead and buried for good. Praise for David Hewson: 'Very enjoyable Italian mysteries ...cleverly worked out and sharply written' - "Literary Review".