Set in 1808, the superb third whodunit from the pseudonymous Gregorio (the husband-wife team of Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio) to feature Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis (after 2008's Days of Atonement) subtly probes the heart of human darkness. When a woman who collects precious amber, a resource Napoleon hopes to use to generate funds, is horribly butchered, Stiffeniis must work for his French occupiers to solve the mystery. As more victims follow the first, Stiffeniis's hopes of a speedy resolution that would enable him to be present for his latest child's birth are dashed. Aided by Johannes Gurten, an odd apprentice who's adopted Buddhism, the sleuth attempts to get cooperation from those working at all levels of the amber trade to identify the killer's true motive. While some readers will anticipate the solution, the pitch-perfect evocation of the period and the compelling, gloomy atmosphere more than compensate for any lack of surprise. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A Visible Darkness (Hanno Stiffeniis Series #3)by Michael Gregorio
Prussia has been overrun by Napoleon's forces, and the Emperor's troops have discovered a new source of funds there: enough amber to finance France's wars. But their plans stall when the girls who collect the stones begin to disappear, only to be found gruesomely disfigured by an unknown killer. The French call upon Prussian investigator Hanno Stiffeniis, who
Prussia has been overrun by Napoleon's forces, and the Emperor's troops have discovered a new source of funds there: enough amber to finance France's wars. But their plans stall when the girls who collect the stones begin to disappear, only to be found gruesomely disfigured by an unknown killer. The French call upon Prussian investigator Hanno Stiffeniis, who must seek out the culprit knowing that his own success may doom his country's future. Dark, intelligent, and vividly written, A Visible Darkness continues a masterful series of historical mysteries that portray a past torn between nationalism and humanism, superstition and science.
Napoléon, having conquered Prussia, now wants to finance his campaign into Russia by using Prussian amber, but when a killer targets the women who collect the stones, Prussian procurator Hanno Stiffeniis is ordered to investigate. Working for the French does not endear Steffeniis (Days of Atonement; Critique of Criminal Reason) to his countrymen, but he manages to impress all with his ability to conduct a complex murder investigation, enter the world of amber smuggling, and sort out the convoluted reasoning of the killer. Gregorio (a pseudonym for Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio) writes dense prose and detailed passages on living conditions of the time. But he excels in his depiction of an unusual sleuth who combines the wily psychology of a conquered people with the underlying philosophy of his former teacher, Emmanuel Kant. Recommended for mystery readers who like literary historicals.
Jo Ann Vicarel
Read an Excerpt
'Three of them can consume a dead horse in three days.'
Linnaeus might have been describing famished wolves or bears emerging from the forest in desperate search of winter nourishment, but savage Nature was not the subject of his dissertation.
Flies . . .
That's what Linnaeus was talking of.
And as I left the house that morning, I spotted another corpse in the garden.
The lawn and flower-beds had become a cemetery in recent weeks. I had buried a rat, three field- mice and a squirrel, intending to hide them from the eyes of Helena and the children. I knelt down to examine the creature more closely. Half hidden beneath one of the rose- bushes, a fair- sized stoat in what remained of its red- brown summer coat.
It had not been there the previous evening when I returned from my office in town. Yet overnight, it had been reduced to a skeleton, more or less. Four or five bluebottles were fighting over the last shreds of .flesh, darting in, teasing at the fat where the ears had been, pulling at the gristle as they flew away, but never going very far. The bared, pointed teeth made no impression on those ravenous creatures. They seemed to have no notion of fear. Armageddon had arrived for the stoat in some form or other; the flies had done the rest in no time.
It seemed to verify Linnaeus's claim.
In the past few days I had been reading everything that I could lay my hands on regarding flies and filth. Count Dittersdorf's library had yielded up Linnaeus, and other useful things as well. But this particular essay was a revelation. Where they came from, what they ate, the cycle of their existence, how fast they could reproduce. They came in all shapes and sizes, and he divided them into a regular army of species and sub species. The familiar musca domestica, the yellow- striped scathophaga stercoraria, the larger calliphora vomitoria, and a hundred others. The Latin names spoke volumes about their .filth, their habits, and the danger that they posed.
Lotingen was infested with them.
My home was besieged by them.
They filled the air, settled on every surface, seemed to multiply like the locusts in the plague that was visited on the ancient Egyptians according to the Bible. They crawled around the eyes and the mouths of my children, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had taken refuge in books, hoping to find some news which would tranquillise my own misgivings, and end my wife's fears. So far, I had found nothing. On the contrary, what I read called forth questions that I had never previously considered. How many days would it take, for example, for the same three flies to consume the corpse of a man, a woman, or a child?
Each day was hotter than the day before.
Walking along the dusty road to town each morning, I had begun to notice a host of creatures that I had never seen before. Strange winged ants with metallic shells the colour of brass, which attacked and ate the smaller flies and midges. Larger beetles with hard green carapaces lurked in holes that they had dug in the rock- hard banks of the lane, darting out to catch the ants which ate the flies. It was as if Nature had declared a universal war between its constituent parts.
And here was the evidence in my own garden.
It was hard to imagine such destructive ferocity in any creature, let alone one that was so small, but those bluebottles showed no intention of leaving the corpse alone while anything edible was left on the bones.
Had the flies consumed the fur, as well?
Linnaeus had said nothing regarding the horse's hair.
I made a show of examining the roses, in case Helena was looking out of the window. The blooms were dry, opaque, brittle. At the merest touch, the petals would fall to the ground like autumn leaves. Strands of a cobweb glinted like harp- strings in the sunlight, and, as I looked more closely, something else that Linnaeus had written returned to my thoughts.
He spoke of Nature's 'inevitable revenge.'
Trapped in the fine silken threads, twisting this way and that, a fly was trying desperately to free itself from the mesh. Rainbow-colours flashed off its shining black armour. One wing was beating in a blur, its tiny legs pushed frantically against the silk restraints.
Like a tightrope walker, a spider ran out to watch.
With a sudden dart, the spider leapt forward. Part of the thorax disappeared inside the spider's maw, and the victim bounced more furiously on the imprisoning thread. In trying to break loose, it seemed to tie itself up even more securely.
A rose- petal fell to the ground, and the spider pulled back, watching.
The captive fly made one last effort to escape.
With a sudden jerk, it appeared to take flight.
Just as suddenly, it twirled and twisted, spinning round and round the vibrating silk, and all the fire went out of it. I saw the devastating effect that the spider's attack had had. The part of the body that had been caught for an instant in the spider's mouth was flaccid and flat, all the colour gone, as if it had been sucked dry.
One rapid .final dart, and the fly was gone.
I was tempted to call Helena, and show her what I had just seen.
Would she believe me if I told her that it was the self- same fly that had caused her to scream the night before? Would she be pleased that it had fallen prey to a more terrible spider?
I dismissed the idea.
The sight of that voracious spider would distress her all the more.
The baby was due in a month, or so.
Since the invasion of the flies three weeks before, Helena had roamed the house with a leather fly- swatter in her hand, her mouth set hard, determined to eliminate every buzzing thing that came within striking distance. The windows were now kept constantly shut, and Helena would reprimand Lotte if a door or window were left ajar. The air inside the house was stale and putrid, as if something organic had been pushed beneath the sofa and left to rot. The children stayed indoors; they were not allowed to play outside.
Helena was afraid for them, she admitted.
I was afraid for her, instead, though I could not bring myself to tell her.
One day, while reading an article in a French publication—the writer claimed that one fly alone could hatch a million eggs—I suddenly realised that Helena was standing close behind my chair, and that she was reading silently over my shoulder.
'Does it mention that they are the eyes and the ears of the Devil?' she asked, her eyes never shifting from the page.
I threw the article aside, and jumped up. I meant to comfort her, but she shrugged me off, half stumbling away, her left hand on her greatly swollen belly, her right hand holding out the fly- swatter which had become a fixed extension of herself.
'They are, you know,' she murmured.
Her hand smashed down to take another insect life.
Last night, she had wakened the house with a cry that set my heart racing.
Lotte came running into the bedroom from the nursery, and I jumped down from the bed. Helena was bending over the cot of baby Anders. The night was hot, but Helena was as cold as ice. Her hair was a wild burning bush of chestnut curls. Her expression was that of a Medusa who had seen her own face in a mirror.
'What is it, ma'am?' Lotte implored.
I took my wife by the arm, trying to lead her back to bed.
She pushed my hands away. Her eyes were wide and fixed on the baby. She had seen a huge black fly crawl into his mouth, she said at last. And it had not come out again.
Lotte glanced at me, and shook her head.
A nightmare, she mouthed without speaking.
There was no . y inside the child's mouth. Nothing had happened, if not for the terrible vision which had wakened my wife. Lotte nodded towards the cot where Anders continued sleeping. He was the only one in the house who did not wake up. His face was serene, his breathing regular. Having finally got Helena into bed again, I searched high and low for the monstrous black fly which had cast its dark shadow on her imagination. I told her that I had killed it, too, but I do not think that I managed to convince her.
As I gazed on that spider in my garden—the leg of the dead fly jutting from its jaws like a bent piece of wire—I had to wonder whether Helena's dream had been not simply a distempered nightmare, but the vision of a real and terrible danger.
I went to take a spade and quickly buried the stoat, waving off the flies that circled around it in an angry swarm, nipping at my hands and face and neck, as if to take from my flesh the nourishment that I had just deprived them of. Then, wrapping a damp handkerchief around my face, breathing in the essence of lavender in which Lotte had soaked it, I went out quickly through the gate, turning right along the lane in the direction of Lotingen and the procurator's office.
The closer I got to the town, the worse the stench became, despite the lavender, despite the pressure with which I held the cotton to my nose.
By the time I reached the East Gate, I could hardly breathe.
The hot sun had only partly dried the river of yesterday's filth which covered the cobbles leading in the direction of Gaffenburger's abattoir. Beneath the solid crust, there was a semi-liquid mulch. And fresh beasts had been driven into Lotingen that morning, adding their own deposits to those of yesterday, and all the days before. The street was a dark brown carpet, and all above was a dense dark cloud of flies and other insects. If one attempted to pass that way, they would rise up, buzzing angrily at the intrusion, then fall back where they had come from.
The insects frightened us, but Spain terrorised the French even more.
They were facing a new kind war down there; the Emperor's answer was to send more men. Prussia had been subdued, while Spain had not. The campaign was a bottomless pit into which they were pouring money, men and arms. For over a month, the number of soldiers passing through our streets had been growing day after day. The Emperor's . nest were going to Spain; the worst would remain in Prussia.
French horses fouled our streets, as did the cows and the sheep that fed the troops. If an animal dropped dead, they left it there to rot. Bones and carcasses littered every yard of the way to Gaffenburger's stockyard. Wagons crowded with French soldiers rolled in swift succession down to the port, and every imaginable thing was left behind them: the remains of food and drink in every form. Solid, liquid, fully or partly digested. It was a common sight to see defecating French buttocks hanging out over the end of a cart. The flies swarmed in their wake, fell hungrily upon the sewage. Lotingen was sinking beneath a tide of filth. Myriads of insects floated on it, and flew above it. The French would not clean up after themselves. No Prussian would clean up after the French. And to make things worse, the gentle breeze from the sea which generally tempered the summer heat was nowhere to be found.
How long had it been since our lungs had breathed fresh air?
Linnaeus had been quite clear on this point: foul air and filth make flies!
I strode across the bridge.
As a rule, I go straight on, passing along Königstrasse, following the southern wall of the cathedral, then crossing over the market square to my office, which is on the far side, opposite the French General Quarters.
Instead, I turned sharp right.
Fifty yards down the lane stands the yard of Daniel Winterhalter. If one has to travel anywhere that the public coach does not go, and if one does not happen to own a horse or a trap, then a call at Winterhalter's is inevitable. He always has a fine selection of horses and a range of phaetons, flies and berlins for hire.
I went in through the arch, feeling better now that I had made my decision.
In the corner of the empty yard—most of the coaches had already gone—stood a most unseasonable carriage for the north coast of East Prussia. Winterhalter must have regretted buying it a thousand times: an ancient landau painted the same colour as the filthy sludge which fouled the streets outside.
Has anyone beaten me to it?' I asked him, pointing.
Winterhalter was rubbing down a fine bay with a wire brush, chasing away the flies as he finished his stroke, in a sort of intricate ballet in time with the horse's swishing tail.
'It's the last one left, Herr Stiffeniis. And not the best, as you can see. They requisitioned all the rest first thing this morning.' He pulled a glum face. 'I just hope they decide to pay, that's all! If you aren't going far, it'll get you there and back.'
'Not far,' I said, giving thanks to God for the unserviceable state of the landau. 'How long will it take to get her ready?'
I knew how long it would take. The minute we had finished haggling over a price, he would put one of his older hacks—certainly not the fine bay stallion—between the shafts, adjust the halter, invite me to climb up, hand me the reins, and remind me to use the whip with urgency and frequency.
Five minutes later, I was rolling back the way I had come. I had made a decision, and would leave the procurator's office in the hands of my clerk for the morning.
Excerpted from A. Visible. Darkness by MIGHAEL GREGORIO
Copyright © 2009 by Mighael Gregorio
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Meet the Author
MICHAEL GREGORIO is the pen name of Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio. They live in Spoleto, Italy, and were awarded the Umbria del Cuore prize in 2007.
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In 1808, Prussia is a cesspool of corpses as the French army has devastated the locals. In that environ, Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis, heeding the advice of his late mentor Immanuel Kant, tests the impact of the dead rotting in fields on the health of the living. He believes the populace including the invaders faces health risks and plans to use empirical evidence to prove his case so the French will clean the environment. French Colonel Antoine Claudet asks Stiffeniis to investigate the murder of Kati Rodendahl, a Prussian woman collecting amber to sell to the occupying army because Napoleon wants it. With a child due shortly and wanting to be with his wife and their family, Stiffeniis reluctantly agrees. With able assistance he begins his inquiry, but more homicides follow that leaves the Prussian knowing he will miss the birth of his child while the bureaucracy wants the case dropped in a charged atmosphere of hate and distrust between the occupiers and the occupied. The third Stiffeniis police procedural (see CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL REASON and DAYS OF ATONEMENT) is a superb historical piece that brings to life (and death) Prussia under French occupation. The story line has themes that apply today in the Middle East as Stiffeniis believes the motive is to assassinate those people considered traitors for seeming to support the occupiers even if it is just to feed your family. Readers will relish this powerful tale that resonates with its gloom and doom that once again parallels early nineteenth century Prussia with 2006 Iraq. Harriet Klausner
Scary! I love the suspense. Just please make the chapters a little longer.
AHHHHHHHH!!!!!! I like it!
I love it!!!
"Moone!" A sweeter voice called my name. I glanced up, smiling slightly as Midnight Beauty and Frost Feather walked over. "Hey, Frosty. Midnight." I greet them, my mane whispering across my shoulders in a breeze. "What'cha up to?" Frost asks. I shrug, "Try to clear my head before heading up there." I incline my head to the clouds. "Well, we gotta surprise for you." Midnight squeaks. I raise an eyebrow and allow myself to be led into a building. A lone pale, cloudy crystal stands alone on a table. Suddenly, Frost flicks off the lights. The crystal grows bright, illuminating our faces in an eerie blue-green light. "Whoa....." The words fall out of my mouth. I press my hooves against the sides of the mysterious crystal; a welcoming hum rattles through me. 'Blue Moon...' A voice flutters through my ears, 'I am waiting where your dear brother rests... I can help you.' 'With what...?' 'Your past...' The voice slips away, leaving my ears tingling. "What did it say...?" Frost mutters eagerly. "What...?" I ask, still befuddled. Midnight giggles; wait, giggles?! I swiftly turn around, the crystal clutched against my chest. Frost and Midnight slowly advance on me, insectoid eyes replacing their own, curved horns upon their heads. "Changlings..." I utter in horror, backing away. "Yes, Moone..." Frost-Changling hisses. "What have you done with Frost Feather and Midnight Beauty?!" I shout defiantly. Midnight-Changling giggles again, "Oh, they're fine. Wish we could say the same for you...!" I step back more, tripping over a fallen chair. I gasp as the wind rushes from my lungs, my hooves aching as they strike the floor. Then Frost-Changling and Midnight-Changling are upon me...