Another scenario: You’re in a book club. The woman whose face reminds you of your late Aunt Gertrude is in line to select next month’s read. You have failed to connect with every book this woman has ever picked, and unlike her other selections, the particular title and author she announces don’t ring even a faint bell with you. You go to your local bookstore, purchase the book, step into a nearby coffee shop, read for 15 minutes, and are so enamored you are ready to propose marriage to Auntie’s look-alike, despite the fact she’s 20 years older than you and happily married.
Most readers have experienced similar enlightenments, those grand occasions when some book drops into your life and rouses in you that wild zeal more typically found at a Panthers tailgate party or a Baptist tent revival. You commence reading and soon find yourself unable to put the book down, pushing back appointments, telling your partner you have a headache, flipping pages past midnight, so engrossed during lunch that your wandering spoon add drops of chicken soup to the printed page.
Some time has passed since this pleasure decided to pay me a visit, but 10 days ago Serendipity took a hand and guided me to the shelves of a public library looking for a quote from Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. That novel — a favorite, by the way — was checked out, but as I turned to return to my desk I saw six or seven hardbacks tightly squeezed together on the next shelf, all written by “David Hewson.” Curious, I pulled one of the novels from its comrades, scanned the description on the inside of the front cover, and discovered that Hewson, a writer unknown to me (yes, I am shamed), was writing a police saga set in Rome. A look at two or three of the other hardcovers told me that Hewson had written a series of these novels, all set around a team of investigators assigned to solve murders in the Eternal City.
A Season For The Dead appeared to be the first in the series, a placement I confirmed minutes later on my laptop. The book appealed to me — it was set in Rome, where I’d spent some time two years ago, and I needed some popcorn for the summer, popcorn being books that serve as snacks rather than five course meals — but I hesitated. A number of different projects were absorbing me, taking more time and work than I’d expected, and I wasn’t sure I had time to begin a new book.
I returned A Season For The Dead to its shelf and went back to work. Later, after slipping my laptop and papers into my backpack, I started for the door. But that book kept on nagging at me, and so I did a 180, jerked A Season For The Dead from its companions, and went to the checkout desk. Later that evening, work for the day accomplished, I began reading. One word will suffice for what followed.
Hooked. Hooked, hooked, hooked, hooked, hooked.
The publisher of such a series needs to put a warning label on the front of each of these novels, advising prospective readers that these David Hewson tales may cause lost sleep, absence from work, pale complexions, and in some extreme cases, symptoms of drug addiction.
Why? What did the Hewson novels take me into their grip and make me their biblio-slave?
First up on a short list of reasons are the characters. Nic Costa is a young police detective, not a rookie but still learning the trade, guided by his partner, Gianni Peroni, an older man known for his battered face and blunt speech, and by Falcone, their dogged, tight-lipped superior. Joining this team are Teresa Lupo, the police pathologist who joins the detectives at various crime scenes, and Emily Deacon, an American who goes from working for the FBI to studying architecture in Rome. All of these characters have faults and make mistakes, both in their work and their personal lives, errors that make them real and more intriguing.
Next, Hewson knows Rome, not just the streets and piazzas, but the life of the city: the street vendors, the government bureaucrats, the outsiders like the Croats, Serbs, and other immigrants, the food and talk of the restaurant and trattoria. When we read these books, we get a double-dip treat: a great story and a tour of Rome and Romans. Two of the books in the series also take us to Florence, and one, as yet unread by me, to Florence. Hewson has also written similarly of similar protagonists in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, again, apparently, with a deep knowledge of those cities and their people.
Knowledge makes the final cut of the short list. A blurb on the back of The Garden of Evil describes the story and the writing as “intelligent entertainment.” And so it is. So far, these novels have taught me too many subjects to list here: Italian cooking, pathology, the art of painters like Caravaggio, Venetian glassmaking, the historic churches of Rome, the Pantheon, and so much else, all blended flawlessly into the story.
Three cautionary notes: If you decide to embark on this adventure, I would highly recommend reading the books in order. Unlike some other series, characters in these books do change.
Note two: Read more slowly than I have. I am slowing down now, but cheated myself of the goods in the first two novels by getting swept up in the plot.
Note three: Be prepared to get hooked. Stock up on some coffee and vacation time.
Two thumbs up. And that’s only because I have no more thumbs.