The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson

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The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: This crime novel linking current investigation to the disappearance of a child in mysterious circumstances 14 years before is set in perfectly evoked modern Rome but refers to long-forgotten cults of 2,000 years ago as well as touches issues of parenthood and authority. Suspenseful, colourful, sensual and often over the top operatic; it's an enjoyable read and comes recommended, especially for fans of foreign-set police procedurals.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 360 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-1405050227

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A crime novel is often a vehicle for describing people and/or places. Ones set in familiar or iconic locations are usually the latter: Thorne's London, Rebus's Edinburgh and of course all these Italy-based, English-written crime stories by the likes of Magdalen Nabb, Donna Leon and, not least, David Hewson.

In The Seventh Sacrament detectives Nic Costa (young, optimistic, personable) and Gianni Peroni (older, gruffer, bigger) and their boss Leo Falcone (the only one of the three with a fairly developed character) are back in Rome after their exile in Venice, investigating a series of murders which have their source in events of 14 years ago when an archaeologist's son disappears in mysterious circumstances involving 6 students trying to re-enact an old ritual in a subterranean labyrinth of a newly discovered Mithrean temple.

Rarely for a crime novel, we know who committed the currently investigated crime pretty much from the beginning, we also know - roughly - why. What we don't know is how it all ties up to the events of the past and what is behind it: because, as befits a mystery novel (and particularly one with a strong operatic streak), certainly not everything is as it seems.

The Seventh Sacrament is a pretty compelling read, with pace, suspense, cliff-hangers in all the right places and multiple points of view which are easy to follow but make for added interest too. It's also decently written, without any major grating in dialogue or description.

This is the fifth book in the Costa and Peroni series but can easily be read as a stand-alone novel. I haven't read the first four and had no difficulty in connecting to the characters and following the story.

Of the main players, Costa, Peroni and Falcone are all there, complemented by Teresa Lupo the pathologist (definitely my favourite character in the novel) and a new agent, Rosa Prabakaran, an educated, intelligent but still a rather inexperienced woman of Indian origin. There is a bit of differentiation between the main players, but overall The Seventh Sacrament is not a character-driven novel, at least not on the side of the law. There is a bit more depth on the side of the baddies, where the figure of Professor Barmante looms large and rather frighteningly mad.

For those who take their crime novels seriously, the plot is what would probably fail The Seventh Sacrament a little: it's a testament to the writer's talent that something as preposterous as an idea of an archaeologist obsessed with a long-lost religious cult and its underground places of worship and thus driven to madness and murder can be taken at face value and accepted as an action engine. The denouement is even more contrived than the majority of the plot; and I thought it was a bit unnecessary: although it allows for a resolution a bit more merciful to the main characters.

On the other hand, for those who hunt for meaningful themes even in their escapist fare, The Seventh Sacrament can provide some inspiration to think about authority (in few cleverly subtle strands, the problem of authority is psychologically very important in the novel) and fatherhood (and how the two can mix, connect and interplay in the same relationship).

The description of Rome is, however, the main attraction of The Seventh Sacrament and here Hewson does really well. It's sensual, atmospheric and it brings the city to life in an admirable way. One can almost touch the stone, smell the damp dark passages, see the pale, dirty winter light. For those needing to know where their detectives move, there is also a map (did somebody read our review of The Lizard's Bite?); and those who have been to Rome even once should recognise the city Hewson's describing.

There are also few moments of true, monstrous brilliance involving horse slaughterhouses and flatworms amongst other things: drain and cave systems under cities are a rich source of such imagery (as for instance in The Worms of Euston Square) and Hewson makes good use of this potential.

At first, I wasn't that impressed with The Seventh Sacrament: it read like a decent but not extraordinary novel. As it progressed, though, I felt increasingly compelled and enjoyed the darker and complicating spectacle more, though the resolution was a bit disappointing. I was wavering somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars but as it's well written and I am tempted to read the other novels in the series, I've settled on 4 and would recommend this one to fans of police procedurals and in particular the foreign, atmospheric ones.

Thanks to the publisher for sending this novel.

You might also enjoy Any Human Face by Charles Lambert.

David Hewson's Nic Costa novels in chronological order

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