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The Villa of Mysteries, David Hewson, Dell, $6.99.

The Villa of Mysteries by David Hewson

One of the innumerable good things about mysteries is their ability to make the reader a world traveler without moving an inch. Italy has always extended a fascination for tourists and, as Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin's successful series attest, for mystery fans as well. David Hewson is the latest writer to mine the rich vein of this ancient and slightly dysfunctional land and he's produced a stunning book with his latest, The Villa of Mysteries. The second novel in Hewson's series, The Villa of Mysteries takes place in Rome and presents a large cast of expertly drawn characters immersed in a series of crimes with roots in both the ancient and recent past. The discovery of a bog preserved corpse, apparently the victim of an ancient mystery cult, kicks off the action which races through more twists and turns than any Roman street.

Rather than concentrating on a single detective, Hewson puts us in the heads of many characters, both good and bad. Nic Costa, the sort of hero whose "persistence, compassion and dogged sense of justice" almost doom him, is surrounded by American and Italian gangsters, difficult but dedicated colleagues, warped academics and my favorite character, "crazy" Teresa Lupo, the driven pathologist who often falls prey to her Quincy-like compulsion to rush to the crime scene and solve things herself.

At first I was worried that the large canvas and meticulous set-up would result (as it so often does these days) in a bloated, overlong book, but in Hewson's expert hands this plot engine quickly achieves compression and races to a thrilling conclusion that manages to deliver unexpected revelations all the way to (literally) the last word, yet leaves just enough unconsumed possibilities to fuel the next book in the series. Hewson's masterful, multifaceted characterizations, evocative portrayal of a Rome honeycombed with dark ruins and haunted by history, and tightly wound plot make this book a real winner, a find for anyone who wants to do a little armchair traveling or to simply read a fine mystery. (Jamie)


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