30 January 2008

Book Review: A Season for the Dead by David Hewson

A Season for the Dead Historian Sara Farnese is studying in the reading room of the Vatican library when an old colleague approaches her with a crazed look, a gun, and a bag containing a fresh human skin. But before he can finish whatever he’s trying to tell her, a jumpy Swiss guardsman opens fire. The Rome police department’s resident misfits, Detectives Nic Costa and Luca Rossi, hear the commotion on a scanner and rush to investigate, even though the Vatican is outside their jurisdiction. And since there’s nothing to prove the skin’s owner wasn’t murdered in Rome proper, why not follow the lead that Sara thinks she’s deduced?

What they find drops them into the middle of the case of a serial killer who’s only just getting started. Each victim is killed in the manner of an early Christian martyr, and they all have something else in common. With zero useful clues, the police have only Inspector Falcone’s machiavellian (and potentially deadly) plan, and the remote hope of extracting something from Sara, who has reacted with eerie coolness to the gruesome murder case unfolding around her. Or will a corrupt and desperate cardinal reveal what he knows in return for safe passage back to America?

I learned something about series by reading this. Start with a later book, and unless the series is heavy on the continuity you should be fine. Going back afterwards doesn’t work nearly so well, especially if you start thinking about the second book, and then start remembering the second book. That’s what I did, and recalled enough about how number two started to have a horrible idea of how number one would end. But that turned out not to hamper the suspense too much, as one thing I would have suspected anyway and the other didn’t happen in the way I thought it would. Nor did it slow the rate of page-turning. I’m glad I’m not in the habit of biting my nails, because if I was they’d be wrecked; there were points where I wanted to shout at one of the characters ‘Don’t do it! Don’t you know that being noble in a thriller greatly reduces your life expectancy?’ (And speaking of biting, this may not be the best book to read over lunch; some of those martyrs met quite gruesome ends.) Needless to say, the villain was a psycho; yet once they’d started the method and the goal made a certain twisted kind of sense. The actual triggering, however, I didn’t really buy; how could the instigator have known that that cozy little conversation would have anything like the desired effect? Fortunately the other characters make up for this. Some are decidedly eccentric (like the pathologist who decides to stage a skinning demonstration using a fresh side of pork in the middle of a crowded restaurant) and many are quite insightful when it comes to the people around them. And none of them emerge unscathed, which in The House of the Spirits makes for dreary reading but here fits perfectly.

After I’ve taken a bit of a break from thrillers I’ll have to re-read The Villa of Mysteries - and in the meantime, daydream about being let loose amongst the treasures of the Vatican library for, say, a year. Or several.

Rating: B

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776