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).
The second interesting thing is how the two parallel plots – solving both the ancient and the modern murders – brings out various aspects of modern Italy’s relationship to the past. For instance, technology plays a significant role in solving the mystery – some nifty computer reconstruction helps identify the animal bones discovered in one of the tomb’s sarcophagi, plus there’s a fairly plausible-sounding scene of translating an inscription using multiple screens and clever technological tricks. People photograph things and e-mail them, and the whole process of working out what’s going on involves a wide-spread network of scholars who can be contacted electronically. Made me think of academic Twitter. There’s also some explanation of tomb robbing and its relationship to local economies – it is only through tomb robbing that the tomb in question comes to light, and the victims of the ‘orrible killings are all tomb robbers or connected with the theft. Just deserts? At any rate, the choice of them as victims reflects a certain attitude towards heritage crime, at least on Manfredi’s part, that might be worth exploring more – I don’t think I’ve read any fiction that’s engaged with the modern phenomenon in this way, so it would be interesting to see whether this portrait is consistent across Italian novelists.
One less positive thing I observed was Manfredi’s attitude to gender. I’m fairly sure that being a feminist doesn’t preclude one from also wearing nice undergarments, which is the observation Fabrizio, his chief male protagonist, makes about his chief female protagonist before he’s managed to get her into bed. In fact, the novel is irritatingly preoccupied with this romantic subplot, which ends with an inevitable consummation and suggestion of a long-term settled relationship resulting in progeny. There are other women in the novel, but one’s coded as the Bad Woman from the start, and the female tech-wizard who does the reconstruction stuff is also vocally interested in shagging one of the other characters. Oh, and it would have been nice if there hadn’t been quite so much emphasis on the importance of finding a wife and settling down for the male characters, who are clearly miserable precisely because that hasn’t happened. Fabrizio has even arrived in the right place to investigate the newly-discovered tomb in part because his previous relationship has just broken up. Good thing that a grisly set of murders happened to bring him closer to the girl of his dreams, really.
I am indebted to Claudia Caia Julia Fratini, whose conference paper earlier this year brought this book to my attention.