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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Italian Letters by Linda Lambert

November 1, 2015

West Hills Press:  Atlanta, GA
2014 (PB)

The Italian Letters continues the odyssey of anthropologist Justine Jenner, whose adventures in Egypt were recorded in the first entry in the “Justine Trilogy,” The Cairo Codex, reviewed here in the spring of 2014.  In that volume, Justine faced dangers from a variety of quarters following the discovery of a small book that proved to be the diary of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The original codex itself was stolen from the office of the Supreme Director of Antiquities in Egypt, and Justine was subsequently exiled from that country for her actions—but not before she was able to secret away a copy of the diary to continue its translation with the aid of her new friend and colleague, the famed French linguist Andrea LeMartin.  The Italian Letters now finds Justine living with her mother Lucrezia in an exquisite casa in Fiesole, Italy, overlooking Florence, and awaiting the arrival of Andrea so they may continue the task of translating Mary’s diary

The codex story thread is then woven into the arrival of Justine’s father, American archaeologist Morgan Jenner, who has been summoned by UNESCO to undertake the excavation of the famed mortuary complexes in Cerveteri, in the hope that fresh discoveries might shed new light on the origins of the Etruscans.  Morgan asks Justine to join him in the quest, even though she has been more or less estranged from him since her parents divorced several years earlier.  Adding to Justine’s complicated life is the addition of her former lover, Egyptian archaeologist Amir El Shabry, to her father’s excavation crew at Cerveteri.  A cave-in occurs at the site, nearly killing Morgan and project historian Riccardo Chia and in fact does kill one of the local crew.  The cave-in proves to be anything but accidental, but to what possible end?  The answer might lie with the discovery of a mysterious sarcophagus buried in a cavern deep beneath the previously excavated necropolis.  This tomb and the remains found within may very well hold the key to a new interpretation of the Etruscan culture and its origins—but would keeping such arcane discoveries a secret from the world be worth committing murder?

Challenges and complexities continue to pile up for Justine as she struggles with fears for her father’s safety as well as the possibility that Andrea may be sabotaging the efforts to translate the diary of Mary.  Is the message hidden in the codex too threatening—particularly to the Roman Catholic Church?  As if these challenges were not daunting enough, Justine discovers hidden in her mother’s home, letters that strongly suggest the existence of a family secret hidden from view for generations—a secret involving her maternal great grand-mother and the great English author, D.H. Lawrence.

Linda Lambert very cleverly brings all of these disparate plots together in a mostly satisfying novel that inevitably leads to the third volume of the Justine trilogy.  Some of the characters may become a bit tedious at times, not the least of whom would be numbered Justine herself, who tends to wallow in self-absorbed angst when there are real problems swirling around her.  But these shortcomings are more than offset by clever plotting and a wonderful ability to describe the sensuous beauties of the Italian hill country and the majesty of modern-day Rome.

Three trowels for Volume 2 of the “Justine Trilogy”—The Italian Letters.