I understand Manfredi has written a number of classically-inspired works; this is the first I have read. It roams a little outside the usual realm of these things, because it decides to play not with the Romans but with the Etruscans, the civilization which preceded the Romans to the north of their city. The Etruscans are notoriously tricky to get a handle on, not least because reading Etruscan is a nightmare (helped mainly by texts written in parallel with Latin versions), and very little of it has survived. Manfredi builds his story on an actual bit of Etruscan culture, a thing called a Phersu which appears most famously in a tomb painting from the so-called Tomb of the Augurs. (If you’re interested, there’s a recent article about the state of Phersu research freely available here, and some reasonable photos of the frescos here.) Manfredi does not restrict himself to the scholarly consensus (or whatever its condition was in 2001 when the book first appeared); instead, he takes the nuggets of scholarly work and builds up a story that suits himself – one which he can then use to build up a plot that mixes supernatural terror with a police procedural murder whodunit. The Ombra Della Sera statue also plays a significant role in unravelling the mystery of what happened centuries ago and how it is connected to a modern case of tomb robbery.
I will freely admit that the Etruscans are not my home turf and so I can’t really comment on Manfredi’s manipulation of the ancient sources. However, a couple of things stand out. The first is the way Manfredi makes the fragmentary knowledge of the Etruscans a feature rather than a bug – part of the problem faced by his investigators is that they know so little of Etruscan culture, heritage and language that they are often groping in the dark for hypotheses. Yet at the same time, Manfredi’s authorial voice allows him to claim knowledge of what Etruscan life was really like, particularly in a flash-back at the end of the novel to the events which ended in the tomb around which the plot revolves. There’s an interesting interplay between the supposed ‘lost’ world of the Etruscans, the contemporary characters’ lack of knowledge about it, and the author’s imaginative reconstruction of what fills in the gaps. It’s actually a really nice illustration of why fiction can help us think about academic subjects with a freedom that we don’t have in rigorously formal academic writing (although obviously the usefulness of that depends on how much attention is paid to the things that academics think can’t be ignored, but that’s by the by).