The Seventh Sacrament – David Hewson

This is fifth of the Nic Costa series of crime thrillers set in Rome. It’s been a while since I read the previous novel, and I’m really not sure why I stopped. Well, this was a cracking episode that means it probably won’t be too long before I continue with the next in order.

The central focus this time is about an academic, obsessed with Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, a Roman cult or religion centered that was snuffed out when the emperor Constantine accepted Christianity in the early 4th century. Giorgio Bramante, the academic, lost his son in the underground tunnels and caverns beneath the city that host many altars to that old religion. At the time of the disappearance, the son was with a group of Bramante’s students, but when they turned up they claimed to have no knowledge of the boy’s whereabouts. Bramante kills one of the students and is imprisoned for murder. Fast forward to his release from jail, and enter Nic Costa and his crew because something bad is about to happen.

First, it’s notable that Costa’s role in this is not as predominant as you might expect.

Second, the other characters are a good mix and the interaction is entertaining and engrossing.

Third, the city backdrop and the Mithraic details are well executed. So far as I can tell, the material is firmly rooted in fact even if propping up a work of fiction.

Fourth, the tension builds up very nicely, with just enough twists in the closing quarter of the book to keep you guessing.

In short, highly recommended. But to get the best out of it, do yourself a favor and work your way through the series, starting with A Season for the Dead.

The Lizard’s Bite – David Hewson

After a long break, this is me returning to the Nic Costa series from David Hewson. This is the fourth book featuring the art-loving detective and his colleagues.

The story here revolves around Venice and a glass making family thrown into chaos when two of their number die in a strange incident. Being the cops from Rome who have been sent away as a punishment for past misdeeds, the locals give Nic Costa and Gianni Peroni all the crap jobs. This time around, they are told to wrap up the case quickly, or else.

As the investigation proceeds – into the Arcangeli family and their possible savior Hugo Massiter – the easy resolution becomes more and more beyond their reach. And then things get worse.

This is a story told at a measured pace, with a good range of interesting characters, and some finely drawn backdrop. There is action and violence, but in between there is an opportunity to enjoy some good writing, and a plot that keeps on delivering up to the final surprise.

This is a good read. You don’t have to have read all the stories in the series before this, but it would probably increase your enjoyment.

Killing III – David Hewson

After enjoying the first and second in the Killing trilogy, I started the last with some concern that it would not be able to keep up the good standards of its predecessors. My worries were unfounded. If anything, this may be the best of the three. (But that enjoyment is substantially aided by having the read the first two. So, do not skip them!)

This time, the story starts when a dead body turns up, and is eventually traced back to the harbor. The police start to think there may be a connection to a plot to assasinate the prime minister. Into the mix comes Zeeland, a megacorp belonging to the local Zeuthen family, when tragedy strikes their domestic bliss. To further complicate matters, this occurs at the height of an election campaign, where the politicking is almost as deadly as the murder on the streets. Sarah Lund is asked to investigate, and she does so in her inimitable style.

The writing takes the reader on an express train of a thriller journey, full of twists and turns, and stuffed with interesting (not always nice) characters, and interactions. There is so much happening, that it almost overpowers you. But Hewson has judged things perfectly, and it all leads up to a grandstand finish that is as suitable as it is shocking.

On reviewing what I have written, I see that I have made no cricticisms of the book. I ask myself if I am being too positive. Was there anything I didn’t like? Maybe just one thing: reading the last words was a bittersweet experience. I did not want it to end.

The Killing is one of the best trilogies I have read.

The Killing II – David Hewson

The second in the series featuring the somewhat abrasive Detective Sarah Lund, sees old ghosts from Denmark’s wartime past stirred up. Our heroine, packed off out of the way to a remote posting after the disaster of the Nanna Birk Larsen case (in the first book), is brought back to solve the slaying of a female lawyer. Nothing, of course, is quite what it seems, and Lund can be relied upon to kick up enough of a storm to unsettle the perpetrator just as much as her colleagues.

The central character is uncompromising, and the portrayal no less so; she carries the show with aplomb, and the odd grimace as you wonder ‘how – or why – the hell did she do that?’ The plot is well constructed, and equally well revealed.

While not as fresh as the first book, it still packs a wallop. Highly recommended, but only after reading the first

The Killing – David Hewson

This is a novelization of a Danish television series that has attracted rave reviews for matching – if not exceeding – the high quality of the source material. The story is simple, but complex. The simple part is that a young girl is found, murdered, having been brutalized then dumped to drown in the boot of a car driven into a lake. The complex part is unraveling how she got there and who did it.

The central police character is a somewhat loose cannon called Sarah Lund. She is supposed to be going off to Sweden to start a new life with her son and boyfriend. But her last day turns up the young girl’s body, and from there things spiral out of control.

One reason for the chaos is that there is an election going on for the mayor, and the key challenger and his party are dragged in to the investigation. Politics being what it is (or can be) the truth about who was where, and when, and what they were doing, is not something the witnesses are so keen to divulge. So false lead follows false lead, until the investigation appears to be eating its one tail. At the same time, the distraught parents are eager for news and justice.

This is a brilliantly constructed crime story. The writing is terse, short, descriptive, and full of non stop action and an ever changing focus. Lund is a whirlwind, and her partner Meyer suffers from the fallout. There’s a bitter inevitability about the hunt that the author postpones with surprise after surprise. It’s a great example of a page turner that left me gasping for breath at the end, while simultaneously trying to work out how all the loose ends came together.

In short, it’s great.

The Sacred Cut – David Hewson

This is the third in the author’s Detective Nic Costa series (see here and here). Again set in Rome, the author branches out slightly by moving away from the lines of a traditional police procedural, and going more for the mystery conspiracy market.

It begins with Rome covered in snow, and the discovery of a dead, posed, body in the Pantheon. Before our hero and his colleagues can get the investigation started, along come a couple of FBI agents from the USA embassy who want the body for themselves, and the investigation to be run their way. Cue inter agency rivalry as the Italian secret service are also involved. Of course, Costa is not for letting things go, though the investigation is somewhat problematic as the only potential witness has gone on the run. From there, the action heats up, with the target of their sleuthing seemingly always one step ahead of them.

I confess to being disappointed in the book. The story was OK, but the writing felt somewhat heavy handed and oppressive compared to the previous books. Also, the characters didn’t seem to grow very much in this book. Even the Roman backdrop was described in dark, Gothic terms, so that the atmosphere was more of a ghost or horror story. Since I know the writer’s recent output has been excellent, I am hoping this was a minor bump in the development trail of his talent. So, I will be trying out the next one. But if it is more of the same, I will not be happy.

The Villa of Mysteries – David Hewson

This is the second in the author’s Detective Nic Costa series (my review of the first is here). Set in Rome, it is a fairly standard police procedural, though it was fresh for a couple of reasons.

First, the feel and the characters were different from the first. Here, Costa is in the story for sure, but the previously peripheral characters are more involved. Second, the narrative doesn’t pull many punches, and although the quality of the writing dips periodically, the overall sensation is of ever rising tension. In the first book, there was a manhunt theme. In this book, there’s more of a central mystery: what is going on, and who is responsible?

The action starts with the discovery of the body of a murdered young girl. This drags up past history involving Emilio Neri, the local mafia boss (who is having problems controlling his son) and Vergil Wallis, an allegedly retired American gangster, and an ancient rite cum orgy that may be about to be repeated.

The characterization is good, the setting is interesting, and the plot is tight, and skillfully revealed.

One thing that stands out now, is the change in the quality of the author’s writing. This book is good, but it has its rough edges. (And yes, I wish I could produce something half as good.) However, the more recent books of Hewson’s that I have read have not had such a lack of finish. In a good way, I am learning some craft as I go, so reading this material is a win-win for me.

On reflection, I enjoyed it. I want to see how the characters and the writing develop, so will be getting hold of more of the Nic Costa books.

A Season For The Dead – David Hewson


Having enjoyed David Hewson‘s Pieter Vos series books (House of Dolls, The Wrong Girl, and Little Sister) I decided to take the plunge and have a go at his series about the Italian (Caravaggio loving) detective, Nic Costa.

Although Costa is the star, a large part of this tale features Sara Farnese, a femme fatale character who is minding her own business in a Vatican library, reading a book, when she is approached by a deranged individual with a bloody bag and a loaded gun. From there on, there is murder and mayhem. The murders are the work of a serial killer, who appears to be targeting people associated with Farnese, posing the victims in ways representative of the deaths of Catholic martyrs. Costa and his colleague Rossi are first on the scene, and they quickly start to brush up the Vatican authorities the wrong way, before focusing their investigation, and trying to identify and find the killer.

The setting is well done, without being overdone. There’s a good flavor of the Vatican and its politics, though some of the stances taken seem a little cartoonish. That having been said, the excitement builds up, and the plot twists and action deliver a good crime novel experience.

The Costa character is also well done; his whole background and relationship with his colleagues, his father, and the outside world, are fascinating. Rossi, his partner, and Falcone, his boss, are good foils, and the interaction is lively and stimulating. Farnese is also an interesting character, though I found my suspension of disbelief being stretched a bit too much by some aspects of her behavior. In parts, I felt I wanted to know more (perhaps needed to know more) and the impression was of a rush to move on. The Vatican heavy, Hanrahan, and Cardinal Denney, were less authentic in my judgement. Scenes involving these two were the least impressive.

Overall, this was a solid start, with the promise of more as the series develops. Even if I hadn’t known before, the ending of this book is an obvious setup for a sequel, so if the author hadn’t delivered it, his fans would have been very upset.

I didn’t think this was as good as the Pieter Vos books, but as hinted above, I could see it could develop into something close to that high standard. And, since I know what the author is capable of doing, I’m going along for the ride. You should, too.

Little Sister – David Hewson

This is the third of the author’s series about Dutch Detective Pieter Vos (my reviews of the others are here and here) and continues the previous high standards.

The story is about two surviving sisters (Kim and Mia Timmers) whose parents and a sister were brutally murdered ten years previously. In the aftermath, these survivors were held responsible for killing someone: the lead singer of The Cupids, a world famous local band. Apparently, they believed he was the one who killed their family. Since then, the girls have been cooped up in the psychiatric facility at Marken, and are now due for release. They have never been beyond the institution walls in the last ten years, and any release will be challenging. They will need close support, time in a half way home, and lots of hard work if they are to make it back into society. But things do not go that well…

I’ll leave the rest of the tale for you to discover for yourselves. It’s enough to know that the odd dead body turns up, and Pieter Vos and his colleagues are on the case. They will peek behind the curtain, and see what evil lurks there.

Of the three books, this was – marginally – not quite as sharp as the others. Oh it’s a good read, and thoroughly entertaining. But somehow the characterization of the girls didn’t completely convince me. I’m not saying it’s bad; just that it did not work for me. A clear case of personal taste. It may be that because I correctly guessed where the story was going, this weakened the characters in my eyes. However, the rest of the characters more than passed muster. And the quality of the writing remained as high as ever.

I continued to enjoy the author’s deft touches at putting enough local color into the story so as to root it firmly in the Netherlands, while at the same time he so clearly put on show the human condition, warts and all.

In short, good stuff, especially if you have read the preceding books and are therefore better placed to see the ongoing development of the characters.

At the end, my immediate reaction was: when is the next book in the series coming out? Get a move on David Hewson!

The Wrong Girl – David Hewson

This is the second  of the Pieter Vos series (my review of the first is here) and firmly establishes the author as one of my favorites. (Why has it taken me so long to find out about this guy?) Read on for the details.

It’s December in Amsterdam. The city is tense with seasonal excitement about the forthcoming parade of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus?) and his attendants. Broadcast live, this big event is sure to attract hundreds of thousands to witness the occasion, and join in the fun. Except this year, the fun is curtailed by what starts out seeming like a terrorist attack, and develops into the kidnap of an eight year old girl. It was supposed to be the child from an Amsterdam aristocratic family; instead it’s the child of a Georgian single mother and prostitute.

Vos and his colleagues find themselves in a forest of competing interests, with the kidnappers making demands that are way above the head of the police force, and the security services making demands that are equally frustrating, an no less difficult. There’s a race against time, to wade through the obstacles and try and find and rescue the girl before it’s too late. The kidnapped child has her own ideas, as does her mother, and even the family of the original target play a part.

Although the central part of the plot was easy enough to work out, this is a finely told tale, with great characters, fine pacing, and a great setting. Hewson is economical with his descriptions, but brings the backdrop to life, and makes the characters seem like familiar people. He keeps the excitement up, and delivers a gripping finale. I very much enjoyed the writing style; it’s neither pretentious, nor flowery, but is packed with fine observation, and skillful focus. The story moves on, and you are carried along. It reminded me a lot of another great writer, Deon Meyer.

There are two measures for me of how good a novel is. One is that there is a sense of disappointment on reaching the end, because I want more. The other is that I read on, when I should be getting to sleep; in other words, a book that is hard to put down. Well, this book succeeds on both counts. Just wonderful.

Do yourself a favor, and get out there and discover David Hewson now. You will not be disappointed.