Witches' Hammerby Jane Stanton Hitchcock
Beatrice O'Connell's orderly life is shattered when her father, a gentleman preoccupied with rare book collecting is viciously murdered. Discovered missing from his library is a seemingly harmless fifteenth-century grimoire - a manual of black magic or, as some would believe, the "work of the Devil." What is the secret of the apparently unprepossessing volume that powerful people are prepared to risk so much to possess? Does it contain a demonic spell? Or is it the map for a hidden treasure buried within its timeworn pages? And so what begins as a casual acceptance of a book of black magic with obscene illustrations ends with the discovery of a vast contemporary witch-hunt.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 6.28(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.32(d)
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The Witches' Hammer
It came as no surprise to those who knew him that my father, John O'Connell, named me for a character in a book. He called me Beatrice, after Dante's guide in The Divine Comedy. A surgeon by profession, my father loved books: They were the passion that shaped his life. His library of rare books and manuscripts was well known to those in the field. Over the years, he had assiduously cultivated what he called his "little garden of knowledge," using expert advice and his own shrewd instincts to form an eclectic but first-rate collection. Even at the beginning of his career, when some purchases were a financial strain on the family, my father could not resist a book that struck his fancy. Unlike most other collectors, who sell their finds or trade them up for rarer, more valuable ones, having bought a book, Dad never let it out of his possession. To him, books were friends; once acquired, they were his for life.
The man most instrumental in helping my father form his collection was Giuseppe Antonelli, a renowned Italian book dealer, who sold him some outstanding treasures over the years, including a Book of Hours illuminated by del Cherico, Niclaus Jenson's incunabulum of Pliny's Historia naturalis, printed on vellum, and a complete set of the Divina commedia, with illustrations, published in 1804 by the master printer Giambattista Bodoni.
Dad met Giuseppe Antonelli in Rome in 1964. He liked to recall the day he wandered into a tiny rare-book shop on the Via Monserrato, where a volume of Plutarch's Lives on display in the window caught his eye. He bought the book on the spot andentered into a lengthy discussion with the proprietor, who spoke perfect English with a light Italian accent.
"Giuseppe and I recognized each other immediately, like Rosicrucians," Dad would say later. "We both knew a bookman when we saw one."
In the ensuing years, the relationship between the two men evolved into something more than that of client and dealer. They forged a genuine friendship with each other, based upon their mutual appreciation and love of rare books. Whenever Signor Antonelli visited New York, he paid a call on us in our town house overlooking the East River on Beekman Place, a quiet neighborhood, well away from the bustle of city life. Our four-story brownstone is one of a number of old-fashioned houses on the charming tree-lined block. Sometimes Antonelli brought with him a parcel of wares he thought might be of interest to my father. Dad, in turn, took pleasure in showing Antonelli his recent acquisitions. On occasion, a curator in the field or another bookman was invited to dine with the two gentlemen. Afterward, I remember how they would sit in the library, drinking brandy, smoking cigars, trading book stories, until long past midnight.
Giuseppe Antonelli was a wiry little man. Angular cheekbones, a prominent nose, and meticulous grooming gave him a striking profile. His beady black eyes, sparkling with inquisitiveness, were forever darting about in search of an object or a person to pin with their penetrating gaze. My father, on the other hand, was big and stocky. His large features and gentle pale-blue eyes were dominated by a mane of white hair. A ready smile and a shambling, cozy appear¬ance contributed to his aura of strength and intelligence.
Signor Antonelli always wore a starched white shirt, a pinstriped suit, cut in the English style, and highly polished black shoes. He sported a cane, the handle of which was a gold hawk's head with an elongated beak. The sculpted bird had red ruby eyes and I was a little frightened of it as a child. Antonelli presented a marked contrast to my Dad, whose clothes, casual or formal, never seemed to fit him.
Even in their manner, the two men could not have seemed more dissimilar. Antonelli maintained a somewhat stiff, formal edge, while my father was naturally outgoing and friendly. However, there was an underlying remoteness in them both, which I believe expressed itself in their obsessive love of books and the solitary life of reading.
In later years, Signor Antonelli, semiretired, made fewer visits to the United States. However, he and my father continued to correspond. A bachelor, Antonelli filled his days with his studies and the company of a few close friends, while Dad enjoyed the life of a family man. When my mother, Elizabeth, Dad's wife of thirty-seven years, had died, two years before, Signor Antonelli sent his friend an incunabulum of Latin meditations on the life of Christ as a remembrance. Dad was a surgeon and he took a rather dim view of religion and its supposed consolations, but he much appreciated his old friend's gesture.
In the wake of my mother's death Dad grew pretty depressed, rattling around alone in his big house. Neither his work nor his library seemed to fill the void created by her passing. I, too, missed my mother very much. My own marriage had ended in divorce the previous year and I found myself drifting closer to my father because we comforted one another greatly. Eventually, I gave up my apartment and moved back home with him. We said it was only temporary, but as the days drifted on the arrangement suited us so well that no effort was made to change it.
One day, my father announced that Signor Antonelli was coming to New York, after a four-year hiatus. As the day approached, I watched him anticipate his old friend's visit with growing impatience, and I was pretty sure that his agitation somehow involved a book. I hadn't seen him quite so jumpy since he'd discovered a copy of the rare and valuable Bay Psalm Book, one of the earliest examples of Colonial printing, at a rummage sale outside Boston over fifteen years earlier.The Witches' Hammer. Copyright © by Jane Hitchcock. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Jane Stanton Hitchcock is the New York Times bestselling author of Mortal Friends, The Witches' Hammer, Social Crimes, and Trick of the Eye, as well as several plays. She lives with her husband, syndicated foreign-affairs columnist Jim Hoagland, in New York City and Washington, D.C.
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