Friday, April 14, 2017

Requiem at Rogano, by Stephen Knight - in which I had great fun and did a serious double take

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1979
301 pp

Another fine release from Valancourt, Requiem at Rogano is a novel that you may think you've read before as you get further into it, but trust me, that just isn't the case.  While a number of authors in the 1970s produced something similar along these lines (I won't say but you'll know what I mean after reading it), this one stands on its own as something unique. As mentioned on the back-cover blurb, the reviewer from The Financial Times wrote about this novel that he can "recommend this to all who enjoy literate crime fiction," a sentiment I share. I'll also add that not only is it literate, but it is twisty to the point where every time I thought I had it all figured out, something happened that nixed my solution and sent me off in another direction entirely. The light bulb only went on in my head during the final moments of the story, just before the reveal.   Now, I don't know about anyone else, but when a writer comes up with a mystery story that I can't solve, well, to me he or she has done his or her job, and has done it well.  These days it takes a lot to find such a writer of mysteries since I've been reading them since I was just a wee girl -- usually I pick up on what's going on and have to settle for waiting not so patiently while the crimesolver person catches up.  It's frustrating, but happily, that's not an issue here. Thank goodness. 

It's 1902, and we are in London. The newspaper headlines are filled with reports of a strange series of murders done by a figure the police have dubbed "The Deptford Strangler," that are leaving police baffled. In the meantime, because of the police regulations requiring an officer to retire at age sixty, Reginald Arthur Brough has been made to take a retirement he's not quite ready for. He'd "tried to make the best of it," but so far, it's not been a happy time.  Things begin to look up when his nephew, Nicholas Calvin, writes to inquire whether or not he'd like to help him with a History of Murder that he's writing. He also notes that he has "stumbled on one case the like of which you've never seen," one that has brought him to Italy.  Brough doesn't take long deciding yes or no -- it is a way out of the "mental stagnation" of retirement, which he sees as a "slow march to death."  However, when he meets Nicholas later, Brough is disappointed in learning that Nicholas wants to "abandon" the project.  In its place he wants to "write a book on one single crime and its aftermath," and relates to his uncle the bizarre story of a series of murders that took place in the Italian town of Rogano in the fifteenth century, complete with strange figures in black clothing, an abbey built on sheer cliffs of solid granite, and the Inquisition.  So at this point I'm hooked like a fish and it's only page 15. After that, it just gets better, as it slowly dawns on the reader that, à la back-cover blurb, the pattern of the 1454 Rogano murders is "identical" to that of the string of murders happening in the present day.  The question of how this is possible sets Brough and Nicholas on the path of a bizarre journey that only gets stranger as time goes on.

There is a LOT more, which I'm not going to reveal here, because as I said a few days ago when talking about  Uncle Silas, the less prospective readers know about this book going into it the better.  While there are several reviews scattered here and there in the cyberworld, my advice would be to restrain yourselves from reading them until you've turned the last page. It is a mega-twisty book with a number of big surprises on the way to the ending, and trust me -- you don't want to know too much about it beforehand other than what you can glean from the back-cover blurb, which is pretty much all I've said about it here. Read spoilers at your peril -- I didn't and I'm very happy I didn't know anything beforehand to ruin the fun I had with this book. 

What I will say is that when I got to the end, I had to completely re-evaluate all that I'd just read.  The conclusion was a downright shocker and so I went racing back through the novel a second time, at which point I discovered exactly how truly ingenious a book Requiem at Rogano really is and how well the author plied his craft here.  And, just in case anyone's wondering why  I'm posting about this book here and not on the crime page of my reading journal, well, there is a definite reason, but I'm not going to give away anything except to say trust me, it definitely belongs here. Plus, if it's read as just a crime thriller, well, that's just wrong. 

James - you picked a good one. Thanks!!!! 

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