Translated from the Italian by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi
Pan Books: London
Italian classical archaeologist/author Valerio Massimo Manfredi has penned an intense and swift-moving thriller that brings together those two time-tested staples of popular fiction: archaeology and the supernatural.
Fabrizio Castellani is a 33-year-old student of archaeology who, like many of his peers, is finding it difficult to establish himself in the discipline and to find, if not permanent, then at least relatively long-term employment. His funk is exacerbated further by his girlfriend unceremoniously dumping him because he seems to have no real future. His fortunes as an academic appear to take a turn for the positive when he fortuitously discovers the misfiled x-rays of an Etruscan statue that appears to have a mysterious and unexplained inclusion in its body. The statue is that of a young boy, at least 2,400 years old, held in the collection of the Volterra Etruscan Museum. Hoping that a scholarly monograph resulting from his research on the ancient statue will secure him a position of researcher at the University of Siena, Fabrizio takes up residence at a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside near Volterra and receives permission from Nicola Balestra, the regional director of the National Antiquities Service (NAS), who has chosen to take up residence in Volterra rather than Florence, to undertake his research.
No sooner does he begin his investigations when he receives a series of threatening telephone calls, warning him to “leave the boy alone,” if he knows what’s good for him. More disturbing is the brutal killing of a well-known local tomb robber who appears to have been literally torn apart by some vicious animal just as he had come upon a previously unknown and unexplored Etruscan tomb. Much to his astonishment, Balestra asks Fabrizio to undertake the excavation of this “virgin” tomb because he has too many other demands on his time.
Puzzled by this incredible opportunity, Fabrizio and a crew selected by the lovely NAS inspector Francesca Dionisi excavate the tomb, located near the Rovaio woods, and discover that it contains a cenotaph—a symbolic coffin—with an alabaster likeness of a beautiful reclining woman on its lid, and a large, very plain sarcophagus. This latter contains the horrific skeletal remains of a man entangled with the remains of a huge canid creature that had apparently torn the man to pieces inside the coffin. To further the horror of the situation, shreds of cloth about the man’s skull leads Fabrizio to conclude that he has discovered the first archaeological evidence of a Phersu, a mysterious Etruscan practice, heretofore only known in iconography,that pitted a be-hooded man tethered to a vicious dog or wolf in a fight to the death.
More violently gory killings occur in the nights to follow with association to the Rovaio tomb apparently a common denominator among the victims. The local carabinieri, led by the charismatic Lieutenant Marcello Reggiani, must find the spectral killer—whether man or beast—before the entire countryside around Volterra descends into panic and anarchy. Reluctantly he accepts Fabrizio and Francesca into his investigations when it becomes apparent that the archaeologists may have the skills needed to solve these nightmarish crimes. A bronze tablet inscribed with an ancient curse and a deserted mansion that looms over the heart of Volterra provide answers to the mystery that only Fabrizio and Francesca can solve—but first they must gain the confidence and trust of a homeless little boy who bears an uncanny resemblance to the statue of the Etruscan boy that brought Fabrizio to Volterra in the first place.
This is a novel that combines the mystical with the mythical as author Manfredi works in large dollops of Etruscan history and mythology into the fabric of his novel. He also conveys with wonderful descriptive powers the beauty and tranquility of the Tuscan countryside—at least until all hell breaks loose!
The protagonists are well-conceived and often quite sympathetic, although at times Fabrizio exhibits rather irritatingly adolescent behavior regarding romance—at least for a 33-year-old adult—until he finally tumbles to the fact the Francesca could, in fact, be the love of his life.
Three trowels for this very entertaining thriller.