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Gregorio, Michael - 'A Visible Darkness'
Hardback: 468 pages (Aug. 2009) Publisher: Faber and Faber ISBN: 0571237878

Lotingen, the hometown of Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis, is suffering from a plague of flies and horrid filth caused by the animal droppings from the livestock the occupying French army need for their food supplies, and for transportation. The French are keen to exploit the amber industry of the Baltic coast and General Malaport sends Hanno to Nordcopp to investigate the murder and mutilation of a young woman who is one of the amber workers. Serge Lavedrine, a French criminologist, with whom he worked on the Gottewald massacre in the previous book, DAYS OF ATONEMENT, has recommended Hanno for the task. The French need the wealth of the Baltic to pay for their troops fighting an insurrection in Spain, and do not want any disruption to their activities. The General agrees to put a guard on Hanno's family, as working for the French is not popular in Prussia and his wife Helena is expecting a child shortly. The French in return, will clean Lotingen's filthy streets.

Hanno goes off to Nordcopp where he learns a lot about the amber trade, the hard lives of the women amber workers and the French project to collect the amber. When more women are murdered he travels to Konisberg and become involved with the "idolaters" of philosopher Immanuel Kant in order to solve the crimes.

Michael Gregorio, the husband and wife team of Michael G Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio have written another big historical blockbuster at 468 pages and clearly love the period, the location and philosophy. They are also very talented writers creating powerful images with their descriptions of the sights and smells of early nineteenth century Prussia under the French occupation.

The lingering greasy sourness of the yellow sheep-fat candles with which Dr Rickert lit his abode. The persistent sweetness of the boiled and basted onions. Plus, other traces of the sharp and bitter which I did not care to identify.

The reader learns about amber and the trapped insects within it and the harshness of the French occupation. The French scientific approach to problems is contrasted to the philosophy of the Prussians. We are instructed on the Pietist religion and its founder Philipp Jakob Spener, and perhaps we are given too much information and too many meticulous descriptions as the narrative is told entirely from Hanno's first person point of view, and this can at times become a little wearisome. Although you might spot the killer fairly early, the descriptions of events and the eccentric characters, my favourite is the wonderfully mean Dr Narcizus Rickert, make up for that weakness, and keep you turning the pages.

On the book cover C J Sansom blurbs about the first Hanno Stiffeniis story, CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL REASON, that it is a "marvellous highbrow thriller". The use of the term highbrow confirms my view that this excellent series may not be for the casual reader, but is certainly very enjoyable for those who have a strong interest in that historical period.

Norman Price, England
August 2009

Norman blogs at Crime Scraps.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 13/09/2009 10:49