I am probably preaching to the choir here, but I cannot imagine anyone picking up a book authored by David Hewson and not falling in love with the subject matter within the first 50 pages or so. Hewson has made a profession of doing the amazing and making it look commonplace in novel after novel. THE FALLEN ANGEL, his latest and arguably best work, continues the practice while upping his own ante by a notch or three.
It is Hewson's practice to take an ensemble cast --- headed in interest, if not by rank, by Rome police detective Nic Costa --- and place them against the backdrop of one of the world's oldest cities as they solve one or more baffling murders. William Faulkner wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Hewson's novels bring these famous words to life, and perhaps nowhere more so than in THE FALLEN ANGEL.
The book begins when Malise Gabriel, a once-renowned American college professor, falls to his death, almost at Costa's feet, as the result of what appears to be an accident involving some faulty scaffolding attached to the building where Gabriel, his wife and his daughter were renting an apartment suite. The incident, its location and the immediate aftermath bring to mind the story of Beatrice Cenci, who was executed some 500 years ago for murdering her father, who, by at least some accounts, had sexually abused her. Indeed, the similarities with that remote incident --- commemorated to this day --- and Gabriel's death make for an uncomfortable comparison for Costa, who is in the position of comforting Gabriel's teenage daughter, Mina, at the scene of her father's death.
While Gabriel's death is initially presumed to be a terrible but unfortunate accident, Costa finds himself plagued by doubt, not only by the historical comparisons (with which Mina seems obsessed) but also by some elements at the scene that don't entirely add up. There is much more to the Gabriel family than appears at first blush. When a series of discoveries, deliberate and otherwise, cast aspersions upon the victim, it seems to be correct when another murder takes place, and, indeed, he has good reason to believe that Gabriel's death was anything but accidental.
Costa is right, of course, but for all the wrong reasons. So it is that even if you somehow put together at least part of what is ultimately revealed here, it is doubtful that you will figure out all of it, as Hewson drops revelations and bombshells --- including a major one --- right up through the final few pages. As tantalizing as the mystery is, however, the primary raison d'etre is Hewson's unparalleled description of the ins and outs of Rome, as he guides you through the hidden nooks and crannies of the city through the eyes of his various and assorted characters.
At some point, Hewson should publish a travel guide to Rome and its surrounding environs (title it "Costa's Roma") as a source book to the magnificent scenery he has presented in THE FALLEN ANGEL and its predecessors. In the meantime, though, Hewson's body of work provides a tempting map not only to an intriguing city but also to the darkest recesses of the human mind, past and present.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 2, 2011