Sara Farnese is a professor of early Christianity at the University of Rome. One day she is working quietly in the Vatican Reading Room when one of her colleagues enters the room behaving very strangely. He pulls the evidence of an appallingly grisly crime from a plastic shopping bag and then proceeds to wave a gun in her face. While she tries to make sense of his bizarre behavior and confusing words he is shot dead by an overzealous security guard.
Sitting in their car just outside St Peter’s Square, Detective Nic Costa and his new partner, Luca Rossi, hear the calls for help over the Swiss Guard radio frequency that Nic is monitoring out of heat-induced boredom. Although they have no jurisdiction in the Vatican State, they are the first detectives on the scene and are soon embroiled in a disturbing series of bizarre murders where each victim is killed and presented as a martyred saint. Constantly blocked by the security officials in the Vatican and possible corruption within his own police force, Nic struggles to solve the mystery of the murders and how they are all connected to the beautiful, but enigmatic, Farnese woman.
I recently read Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant, which is also set in Rome; in fact one of the prime reasons why I read it was because of its setting. I was pleasantly surprised that it did not make any glaring errors in its depiction of the city, but that was mainly accomplished by being rather vague in its details. This was not the case with A Season For The Dead. Mr Hewson has obviously spent a great deal of time in Rome and has done much more than visit the well-known tourist attractions. He describes many obscure places that I have also been and conjures the feeling of Rome with effortless ease, placing us in the terrible, driving heat of mid-summer when all the sensible Romans escape to the coast or the mountains. He evokes the feel and the smell of the place so well that I reveled in it, rather than finding myself waiting for the next blunder or telltale mistake that would reveal his lack of familiarity with somewhere that I know so well. This was a very, very pleasant surprise to me and one that I enjoyed immensely, grinning with delight as he used unusual locations that I recognized. This was a rare experience for me as I am so used to reading books set in the UK that do not quite ring true. For this aspect alone I found the book very enjoyable.
However, not everyone will be so enraptured by his depiction of Rome and its inhabitants, so I will try to set that aside and consider the book’s other attributes. One major problem that several of the other book group members found was with the character of Sara Farnese. We begin the book in her head and it is quickly revealed that she is engaged in an affair with an academic from the UK. She speculates that he probably has a lover in every major city, but she has never asked him about any other attachments, such as a wife. I am normally the first to be disappointed with characters that engage in infidelity, but I did not find her to be so appalling that I could not continue with the book. Unfortunately, several of the other members could not get past this point in the plot and stopped reading. I think that if they had read further and started to get to know Nic then they would have been carried along by the story as I was, but I can understand their decision. Sara is probably the weakest link in the entire book. She is certainly beautiful, intelligent and desirable, and she is provided with a sufficiently terrible origin story to explain her tragically warped character, but she still remains unsympathetic, even once we know all the appalling details. I think that starting the book in her head was a huge mistake.
Fortunately, Nic and many of the other characters are interesting and sympathetic enough to draw us into the story. Apart from his inability to resist Sara’s lure, Nic is an excellent lead character. He is young and still learning his trade, but is not over-confident and full of bravado, nor is he exceptionally brilliant or a ‘golden boy who can do no wrong’. He works hard, makes logical deductions and is heart broken when he is disillusioned by life’s ugliness. He has an interesting back story and a penchant for studying the paintings of Caravaggio (one of my favorite artists to see in Rome). He makes personal mistakes and is suitably human, which I appreciate in the lead character of a series. We see him develop and change over the course of the story, especially in regards to the relationship with his father.
However, it is the lesser characters that really steal the show. This is especially true for Luca Rossi and his girlfriend, the pathologist known to everyone as ‘Crazy’ Theresa. Luca is a detective who has been broken by the job and is simply trying to slog along until he gets his pension. He looks like a slob and seems to care very little for himself: drinking and eating badly, smoking and continually crumpled and sweaty. He looks at Nic and sees the young man he once was, with all his energy and idealism, and finds the world unutterably depressing. There is a wonderful revelation about his character near the end of the book that is very touching, so I will not spoil it, but I will say that I genuinely wanted this man to find some happiness with Theresa: I think he deserved something good to happen to him.
Theresa is a character that I can identify with quite readily because of my training as a biologist. She is quite happy to discuss autopsy details over dinner, no matter how awfully stomach-churning this might be to her companions. This reminds me of many happy hours spent discussing parasites and intestinal infestations with my husband, a former public health laboratory technician, who can spend hours gleefully recounting the horrendous cases he encountered and samples that he processed. For some reason, when you become a biologist you develop a need to discuss the most disgusting topics whilst eating in company! Theresa is also a person uncomfortable with herself, and her position as a woman constantly fighting for acceptance in a male-dominated workplace has made her very abrasive. She is very perceptive and intelligent, with a wonderful wit, so she has some great lines and I hope that she reappears later in the series.
Another great addition to the story is Nic’s father, the dying Communist, Marco. At first, I thought that his addition to the plot was merely maudlin, but he actually brought a wonderful poignancy that grounded Nic’s character and allowed for a lot of soul searching. He was a wonderfully witty character, and the father-son relationship was very well explored, with both of them learning and growing as they came to terms with the inevitable. Marco also had the most normal relationship with Sara Farnese of all the ones that we saw, which did help to humanize her a little.
Interesting characters cannot shine without a good plot and this one skips along at a good speed. We are given a number of unusual points of view to reveal the story, and whilst this means that we are shown much more of the story than we would normally expect in a murder mystery, some people might find it rather unnerving to be placed in the head of a victim just prior to their murder. Equally, the corruption of the Vatican officials and the unethical, even evil, behavior of at least one Cardinal could be a stumbling block to some. Personally, I did not find it all shocking, not after all the revelations about the sexual abuse that the Church has tried to conceal. Also, I tend to be a rather cynical person when it comes to the Catholic Church: I have seen people dressed in sack-cloth and ashes on pilgrimage to Rome and people climbing up the stairs to Saint Peter’s Basilica on their knees in penance or supplication. I have also seen how much of the Basilica’s interior is made of gold and precious stones.
I guess it goes without saying that I really enjoyed this title and I will certainly try to find time to read more of the Nic Costa series. It may be too bloody and controversial for some readers but it transported me to my beloved Rome and kept me enthralled as the various unpleasant truths were revealed.