David Hewson, author of the award winning Nic Costa series.
Book Giveaway: David's publishers have kindly offered 2 signed copies of The Fallen Angel. In order to win, just leave a comment about David's books or this guest post. Winners (randomly chosen) will be announced on Mystery Fanfare on April 23. Be sure and check back to see if you've won. At that time, I'll need your email and snail mail address.
4/24: Book Winners: Beth Groundwater & Sal T. Make sure I have your snail-mail address, and I'll send you the signed copies. :-)
David Hewson has written several novels featuring Detective Nic Costa, beginning with A Season for the Dead. Interestingly, his debut novel, Shanghai Thunder, was published by Robert Hale, in the U.K., in 1986, but most copies were sent to libraries, and it is not recognized in subsequent publications. His second book, Semana Santa, set in Spain during Holy Week, was made into a movie starring Mira Sorvino, and won the W H Smith Fresh Talent prize for one of the best first novels of 1996. David has also written a number of standalone novels, including Lucifer's Shadow and The Promised Land and wrote the second chapter of the audio serial novel The Chopin Manuscript started by Jeffery Deaver, with Lee Child and 13 other co-writers, for the audiobook site Audible.com. He is a weekly columnist for the Sunday Times. The Fallen Angel will be released in the U.S. on April 26.
Where The Fallen Angel came from
All writers of fiction are liars at heart. The better we lie, the more convincing the fiction. One handy way to make your lies more persuasive is to mix them up with the truth. Then those fortunate suckers who carry the label ‘readers’ have to struggle to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. With any luck they give up and just get swallowed whole by the story.
Damn. I just gave away a secret.
I love writing stories set in Rome because there’s so much amazing truth there it always prompts me to come up with a bunch of lies bold enough and wild enough to share the same space in the reader’s mind. And because it’s Rome the evidence for that truth, even if it’s centuries, even millennia old, still lies there between the cracks in the cobble stones, the patina of the ages, dust for an ancient audit trail.
Take this astonishing tale. At the end of the sixteenth century the aristocrat Francesco Cenci lorded it over his noble family, mostly from a grim, foreboding palace in the heart of what is now the Roman ghetto. Francesco, everyone agrees, is a monster. A violent bully, always in arguments with his family and his neighbours. But he’s also a lord of Rome, scion of a family that traces its lineage back a millennium and a half to imperial times. He can get away with anything he likes in these bleak times.
One day Francesco takes his family to his distant country castle. A little while later he’s found dead outside the window of his bedroom. It looks as if he’s fallen from the window, but the locals are suspicious. They know how much he was hated, how many enemies he has.
The Vatican’s investigators arrived and immediately suspect, from the head wounds he’s sustained, he was murdered then dumped from the window. They look at his family and take them to Rome for interrogation.
Interrogation means torture, of course. The strappado, hands tied behind your back, jerked up and down, often till your shoulders are dislocated. They do this to Francesco’s wife and she says nothing. To his beautiful young daughter who remains silent. Then to his son who cracks, and confesses to a plot involving the whole family to murder Francesco for his brutality, the worst of which was repeated sexual abuse of Beatrice, that innocent-looking daughter.
The Cenci are patricides then, but aristocratic patricides. Ordinary citizens who murder, and do a lot less in the fifteenth century, go to the scaffold immediately. The rich ones usually get off with a smack on the wrist. Not now, though. For reasons still unclear the Pope demands the ultimate, public punishment of Francesco’s murderers. The son is brutally tortured as he’s taken in a tumbril along the Tiber, then bludgeoned to death with a mallet on a platform by the bridge to the Castel Sant’Angelo. The mother is beheaded, and young Beatrice too, much to the outrage of the population of Rome who have turned out in their thousands to demand forgiveness for this most innocent of criminals.
Nothing doing… she bravely walks in silence to the block, and her remains are then carried by the multitude to an anonymous grave in the beautiful little church of Montorio.
The story doesn’t end there, though. A painting emerges, one you can still see on the walls of the Barberini gallery. Supposedly it was painted by Guido Reni the night before Beatrice’s death. It shows a beautiful, virginal young girl, innocent and brave. That painting entrances the English poet Shelley who writes a play about Beatrice. Her story catches the imagination of writers and artists across the world, from Alexandre Dumas to Stendhal, Moravia and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Beatrice becomes a cause celebre. Her ghost is reputed to haunt the bridge over the Tiber where she died each night on the anniversary of her death, September 11. A memorial service still takes place in the family church, by Francesco’s palazzo, now an apartment and office block, each year on the same day.
This is Rome, you see. History isn’t a discrete part of the past, an exhibit behind glass in a museum. It’s a part of the present, always there ready to whisper in your ear.
When I decided to use Beatrice’s story as the starting point for THE FALLEN ANGEL, the ninth Costa mystery, I set out to retrace Beatrice’s steps during those final months in Rome. The book features a young English girl, Mina Gabriel, obsessed with Beatrice’s story, not least because her own father has died in a very similar fashion, falling from a window not far from the Palazzo Cenci.
Mina takes Nic Costa on a private tour of Beatrice’s Rome, one that mirrors my own travels as I worked on the background to this book. It begins, of course, in the Barberini with that extraordinary portrait on the wall. After that it’s not hard to find where she was tortured, where she was kept in a cell. The exact place of her death is easy to locate too, now crossed by thousands of unknowing tourists every day as they walk the pedestrian route to the Vatican. After that you can tread the steps of her bier all the way up to Montorio, the peaceful little church behind Trastevere where Napoleon’s soldiers, conscious of her remains, dug up her body and played football with her skull before scattering her bones across the Roman hillside where, eighteen hundred years before, Saint Peter was supposedly crucified.
And finally I found the black museum of the Italian Justice Ministry. There, in a glass case, was a long executioner’s sword. The exact blade, historians believe, that took the life of this beautiful young girl.
See what I mean about history being alive? It always is in Rome. But history’s made of dubious material too at times, and the more I delved into Beatrice’s tale the more I began to be reminded of that old saw from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance… When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Because the Beatrice we know, that virginal teenager on the wall, is a legend. We may not know the full truth of her story, but we know enough to understand that, while deeply tragic, it probably wasn’t as straightforward as Shelley and his followers would have us believe.
But that’s a story for the book, not here. THE FALLEN ANGEL is, like the tale of Beatrice Cenci, a very Roman story, one that scarcely moves outside a small area of the centro storico in the ghetto where she lived and, one warm August day in 1598, died beneath the executioner’s blade. I hope you like it.