THE GARDEN OF EVIL opens in a curious way. Aldo Caviglia was a
baker at one time, but now he is an "over the hill" pickpocket. On
this day he steals the wallet of a well-dressed French woman who
asks him for directions. He then kindly volunteers to show her the
way. As they walk, he tells her that she will be entering an
interesting section of the city, where many famous artists lived.
It was once part of the area called Ortaccio, set aside by the
Popes for prostitutes.
He is embarrassed about bringing this subject up but can't seem to
stop the words that keep coming. "Orto may signify the
Garden of Eden. Ortaccio signifies what came after our
discovery of sin. The Garden of Humanity. Or the Garden of
Wickedness or Evil. Or one and the same." Almost as soon as their
encounter begins, it ends, when he leaves the woman at her
destination. Caviglia pats his pocket to reassure himself that her
wallet is safely hidden there. But he suddenly senses that
something is wrong. He has a bad feeling about the whole business
but can't put his finger on it and goes on his way.
Later, as he inspects the contents of the wallet, he finds "a small
pink plastic box. The front had the universal emblem for
medicine…the caduceus. Two serpents writhing round a winged
staff." When he lifts the top he finds medication marked with exact
times to be taken, clearly a very important part of her treatment.
He also spots a small card, which says, in part, that if anyone
finds this box of medicine, can they please return it to her as
soon as possible, for her life depends upon strictly dosing
herself. Caviglia is a good man who has just decided to be a
pickpocket instead of working. But in this case he immediately
makes up his mind to return the woman's belongings. After all, "he
knew where she was."
He may have left her in what was once an artist's colony and/or a
brothel, but now he has no idea which of the twisting alleys or
ancient buildings she entered. Finally, he asks for help and is
directed to a studio that seems to be known to only a few
people. He goes in search of the "green door," and after he gains
entry he makes his way through the darkness toward a faint light
ahead. "The voice --- high, pained, stretched by such agony he
could not begin to imagine what caused it --- drifted through the
damp, fusty air…pulsing with an exact and heart-rending
rhythm…as if she was being tortured. When he burst into the
room he was too late…too late for any and everything." The
scene before him is impossible to take in.
Caviglia is barely conscious of being told that many famous artists
frequented this area; then one of the drinkers informs him that
Caravaggio, one of Italy's most celebrated and reviled Renaissance
artists, kept a studio there. The canvases Caravaggio had painted
were mainly of male nudes, but he also created depictions of life
and death in Rome. Then a painting hanging on the wall transfixes
Caviglia. When he finally gets his bearings, "his eyes…were
fixed, unfailingly, on the painting, unable to look anywhere else.
This was in some cryptic, unknowable way, the very scene he's just
witnessed" --- a man standing over the destroyed body of a woman,
in reality the one he directed to this place of carnage. This
person "disentangled himself from [the woman's] torso…the
bloody knife…in his hand. There was no point in fleeing the
inevitable." Caviglia keeps his eyes on the painting, "marveling at
the …care, beauty and exactitude" that proved this the "work
of a master."
"The picture possessed a frightful beauty, one that burned so
brightly that, once witnessed, it could never be unseen." He also
realizes that the enigma at the heart of the painting was either
its portrayal of a tortured woman's instant of death, or it
captured her in a pose of complete ecstasy. In either event she is
dead. She has been violated and butchered, just like the woman
slain at this feet, the woman he had met on the bus.
THE GARDEN OF EVIL is one of the best literary police procedurals
written this season. Like five of his six previous novels, this one
features Hewson's reliable ensemble team: Inspector Leo Falcone,
newly promoted Inspector Nic Costa, Gianni Peron, Teresa Lupo and
Silvio Di Capua. They and a score of other law enforcement
operatives begin a focused, intense investigation to find those
responsible for the murders of Caviglia and the woman.
At Falcone's suggestion, Costa meets and begins to work with an art
expert who is a lay sister in a convent. Her knowledge and
intuition carry them into the world of Caravaggio and his
confounding canvas. As events continue to unfold, they deconstruct
the complicated strokes that overlay the twisted lines of the
artwork; then a pattern, secreted underneath the surface, begins to
emerge. Costa and his partner become convinced that the painting
holds a 400-year-old secret whose tentacles reach out into the
present. And, if they are correct, this hidden message will reveal
a conspiracy, played out over four centuries, by a male cult, known
as the Ekstasists, whose only purpose has been to maintain their
garden of evil. Once on this track, the partners think they know
exactly who the killer is and why he has been allowed to "get away
with murder" for so long.
The breadth and intense accuracy of David Hewson's research is the
palette he uses for the landscape against which THE GARDEN OF EVIL
is juxtaposed. With the stroke of his pen, he transports readers to
times and places buried in eons of history while seamlessly
bringing them back to the present. In each of his books his
protagonist, Nic Costa, has slowly shed his picaresque role and is
now a man with a real sense of self. No longer the naïve beat
cop, he has earned his stripes as a detective, which adds
verisimilitude to the way he ferrets out the clues that he needs to
solve the murders in this labyrinthine drama.
Fortunately for readers, even though these novels form a series,
they do not necessarily have to start with book one. David Hewson
is very careful to bring new readers right in to the "family," and
they will have no trouble finding their way. Those who are already
fans will not want to miss THE GARDEN OF EVIL. And new readers will
find themselves enchanted by Hewson's storytelling abilities.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011