Every time I read a book by David Hewson I wonder how it is that THE DAVINCI CODE was a best seller. I wonder how the blockbuster movie on which it was based was so successful. Neither has a plot, an interesting character, or anything that suggests it is something other than a cartoon.
On the other hand –
David Hewson has created three of the most interesting and diverse characters to ever grace a page. Nic Costa, just thirty at the beginning of THE FALLEN ANGEL, Gianni Peroni, his partner, and Leo Falcone, Gianni’s classmate in the police academy, are close friends, men without personal lives, who depend on their relationships to each other to keep them grounded while policing a world-class twenty-first century city that is also firmly planted in the ancient world and the world of the Renaissance. Despite their differences in age and rank, they are a unit.
THE FALLEN ANGEL begins with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE MARBLE FAUN. “She knows that her sorrow is so strange and so immense, that she ought to be solitary forever….It is infinitely heart-breaking to meet her glance, and to feel that nothing can be done to help or comfort her….She is a fallen angel -fallen, and yet sinless; and it is only this depth of sorrow, with its weight and darkness, that keeps her down upon earth, and brings her within out view even while it sets her beyond our reach.” Hawthorne is writing about the sixteenth century Beatrice Cenci, a young woman, who across more than four hundred years, reaches out to the women of every generation who came after her. Hawthorne may as well be writing about Mina Gabriel.
Beatrice Cenci was beheaded by order of the Vatican in 1599 for killing her father, the man who forced her into an incestuous relationship. That she was the victim of a terrible sin and a victim of a terrible crime did not help her. Through the years, Beatrice has become a legend, an icon for women who understand that Beatrice’s suffering was her motive and her guilt a vindication. Her portrait, attributed to Guido Reni, inspired Shelley’s poem about the doomed young woman.
As Nic walks through Rome on a sultry August night, he hears screams and discovers the body of a man, cradled by his daughter. Malise Gabriel is a failed academic whose appointment to an academic institute is his last chance. The police on the scene can see easily that the death is an accident. The apartment in which the Gabriels are living is being renovated. Malise has stepped onto the balcony for a cigarette but the scaffolding has given way and Malise is killed instantly. Mina, a seventeen year-old, is overcome with grief and Nic tries to help her. The police see nothing to be investigated but Nic isn’t comfortable; he feels something is wrong, contrived about the scene. Nic is on vacation and has no business being involved at all but it is August, the police are short-handed, and the heat in Rome has made everyone short-tempered so with Peroni’s help and Falcone’s decision to look the other way, Nic begins to learn what he can about Mina and her family.
Nic quickly discovers that Mina is obsessed with Beatrice Cenci and she does what she can to play up her resemblance to the woman in the portrait Family is the theme that connects the Cencis and the Gabriels across four hundred years. And the different varieties and definitions of family inform the characters of Nic, Gianni, and Leo. “He thought of Peroni and his love of everything to do with that word. Of Falcone and how the very mention of such a secret, insular closeness could place a dark cloud in the eyes of one of the most decent men he knew.” And there is Nic’s solid, loving relationship with his own father that has survived the older man’s death.
Investigating Gabriel’s death leads the police to look into the academic circles that comprised Malise’s professional world. In a book, they find a picture of a young woman whose face is partially concealed. She is in a compromising position. On the back of the picture are scrawled the words, “E pur si muove” – “and yet it moves.” This leads them to Galileo and the ancient argument between church and science for it is these words that Galileo spoke as he left the courtroom after recanting his belief that the earth revolved around the sun. Who in this story is insisting on one thing while believing something else?
Mina takes Nic on a tour of all the places important to Beatrice. At the Palazzo Barberini, Mina shows Nic the Reni portrait of Beatrice Cenci. Then she guides him to Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes. It is not lost on him that Mina relates to two beautiful young women who had to do something terrible for the sake of the greater good. “E pur si mouve” is also translated “In this I still believe.”
Mina, at seventeen, thinks Nic is naive, an incurable optimist, despite what he has seen in his job. Mina has no delusions. Nic is a seeker of truth, no matter how difficult the path and painful the results. Mina is living a role, suggesting she shares the life of Beatrice, but is Mina playing another role? If so, what one?
David Hewson incorporates strong, likable characters ( I didn’t forget pathologist Teresa Lupo), complex mysteries that do not end necessarily where they lead, resolutions that mirror the real world, and hefty doses of art, literature, music, history, and Rome. Every page is a page turner and many pages require the reader to turn back and read some lines again, accepting the complexity of a story that never forgets that it is entertainment.
THE FALLEN ANGEL is so compelling that I couldn’t go on to another book until I had left Nic, Gianni, Leo, and Mina behind.
English: Front view of Beatrice Cenci, marble sculpture (1857) by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer. Location of sculpture is the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, USA. (From Wikipedia)