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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Catacomb by Sarah Wisseman

May 1, 2016

Wings ePress Books:  Newton, KS
2016 (pb)

Sarah Wisseman introduced readers to art conservator Flora Garibaldi in last year’s Burnt Sienna, in which the heroine, with the help of her lover/friend homicide detective Vittorio Bernini, brings down a ruthless antiquities smuggling ring.  In this sequel, Flora and Vittorio have moved into an apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.  She has gone to work for the estimable Ottavia Palmiere’s art restoration business and he has transferred from the Sienna murder squad to the Commando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, aka the “Art Squad.

Information has surfaced that there may be caches of art objects, stolen by the Nazis during World War II, still hidden away in subterranean Rome.  Vittorio has been assigned to assemble a task force of police and civilian experts to establish the accuracy of that information, and if it is true, to find the stolen art and repatriate it to its rightful owners, if possible.

The assignment is fraught with potential pitfalls:  it is conservatively estimated that there are more than 600 kilometers of catacombs, sewers, aqueducts, and slave tunnels—largely unexplored and unmapped—below Rome; some seventy years has elapsed since the end of the war; and given the internecine conflicts within and between the various branches of Roman law enforcement, Vittorio realizes that he might be set up to fail.  Nonetheless, he gathers his task force, which includes civilian experts he can trust, including Flora,  two of her American colleagues– Lisa Donohue, archaeologist from the Boston Museum of Archaeology and History, and her objects conservator, Ellen Perkins—and a number of Roman authorities on art and antiquities.  These academic experts will do most of their investigating in archives and libraries, attempting to narrow down the number of possible places in the vast underground web of tunnels and catacombs in which the Nazi loot might be hidden.

The essentially academic nature of the hunt turns decidedly more ominous as word spreads that black market antiquities smugglers have learned of the task force hunt for stolen Nazi art.  This seems to be borne out when Flora, doing a bit of unauthorized (by Vittorio) “reconnaissance” in the St. Callisto catacombs, finds signs of illicit excavations and is tailed by a mysterious figure.  When two of the investigating members of the Carabinieri art squad are viciously murdered, it is apparent that this is not merely an academic hunt for treasures forgotten for more than seven decades.

Sarah Wisseman’s novels have always combined mystery with historical depth and accuracy, and Catacomb continues that practice.  Vittorio’s task force continues the efforts of the Allied Forces “Monuments Men” of World War II fame, as the author makes abundantly clear.  This is a good mystery, embellished with a few clever plot twists and turns, and a lineup of believable and sympathetic characters—even the bad guys!

Three trowels for Catacomb.