Author of the Month

Name: David Hewson

First Novel: Semana Santa

Most Recent Book: Garden of Evil

'… an absorbing mystery'

An eminent French art historian and an elderly Italian pickpocket are found murdered in front of a Caravaggio painting that has been lost for centuries. Italian police investigator, Nic Costa, catches sight of the murderer but the ensuing frenetic chase ends in personal tragedy for the detective. Despite his personal involvement in the case and his desire for revenge, he successfully pleads to be allowed to continue the investigation.

The rediscovered Caravaggio seems to hold the key to all of the murders. A mysterious mediaeval cult known as the Ekstasists are connected to the painting and now want it returned to them. To solve the case Nic Costa needs to discover what the link is between the Ekstasists and Caravaggio’s masterpiece. He is helped in his endeavours by an Italian lay sister who believes that she can unravel the hidden message contained within the painting.

This is an absorbing mystery by David Hewson. As a newcomer to Hewson’s writing and, in particular, to the Nic Costa series, I thought that the characters and plot lines might be impenetrable to a new reader. I needn’t have worried. The brutal personal tragedy at the beginning of the book means that the detective has to review the case through fresh eyes, and this narrative device allows the reader to enter the world of murder in modern day Rome without any preconceptions.

The plot revolving around the rediscovered Caravaggio is a plausible one and the author is obviously knowledgeable about the painter’s work. This means that the reader can enjoy not only the hunt for the killers but learn about life in Caravaggio’s seventeenth century Rome.

Perhaps the most memorable character in the book is the lay sister, Agata Graziano. The novel sees her metamorphose from a dowdy art buff to a mature woman who questions her religious life. Nic Costa’s role in this transformation is subtly told, although coming on the heels of his recent personal tragedy this might prove too much for some readers.

This is a heady concoction of classic crime novel elements, perceptive characterisation and illuminating historical detail, all set in exotic locations and brilliantly told by a master storyteller.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) As it slowly evolves and increases in popularity, crime fiction seems to be organically sub-dividing into a number of widely diverse categories. Which genre (or sub-genre, even…) of crime novel would you say you write in?
Probably in the part of the room where old-fashioned difficult people sit grumping about the state of the world. I’m not great at divining genres to be honest. I just see myself as a storyteller who happens to like writing dark fairy tales for adults. How other people tag that is up to them. But I do like to produce stories that have, I hope, some texture to them, in terms of multiple points of view and, occasionally, shifts in time too. Twenty or thirty years ago no one would have looked twice at a writer playing with those tricks. These days there seems to be a lot of starkly linear wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am stuff around. Which is fine, and often very entertaining, but easy reading can be a little like easy listening at times. The books I remember as a reader are the ones that made me work and bring the last five per cent of my imagination to the game to make them real.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
See above. I don’t tag books as I read them, and I undoubtedly read much less crime now than I used to. In that essential formative, pre-writing phase I adored Conan Doyle, couldn’t understand why the only people who’d heard of John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron appeared to be me and Denis Healey, and got entirely swept up by Chandler and all that other noir hardboiled stuff. It was rereading one of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books that reminded me I wanted to be a novelist back in 1993, when I’d all but given up. But today I read all sorts… and a lot of non fiction. This book demanded a stack of research into 16th century Rome which was a real delight. As to series versus standalone… I like a series when the author does. McBain never tired of the 87th Precinct too because he used an ensemble cast, not a single protagonist. When I was asked to turn the first Costa book, written as a standalone, into a series I pinched that idea. Without it I wouldn’t be here.
3) How difficult was it to invent an imaginary Caravaggio painting?
It was a nightmare until I stumbled across something painted by one of his contemporaries, Annibale Carracci. Annibale was a pompous prig who produced a lot of heavy religious stuff (his work in the Palazzo Farnese is supposed to be astonishing, but since it’s now the French embassy you need to know someone in the Elysée Palace to get to see it). But young Annibale also did a spot of risqué stuff on the side when he needed the money. When I saw his Venus with Satyr & Cupids it was easy to imagine Caravaggio getting talked into doing something similar. He’s best known for male nudes, of course, but a contemporary letter shows he once painted Susannah and the Elders, which was a classic subject for boudoir canvases commissioned by rich gentlemen, often of the church, would keep them behind curtains, the way some young men keep a copy of Penthouse in the loo. Sadly the painting is lost.
4) Did you have to do a lot of research or were you already well acquainted with the artist?
I always do stacks of research. I spent a large part of that winter in galleries in Rome, particularly the Doria Pamphilj, which is really a private palace that happens to let in visitors. Caravaggio’s Flight to Egypt and Penitent Magdalene are there and you can walk right up to them and see every detail. Heaven…
5) Are we likely to see Agata make a re-appearance in Nic Costa's life?
Not in the next two books the first of which is completed, and the second part way through. After that… I don’t know. For some reason Nic seems to have struck a chord with women readers and they don’t like it if he has a stable relationship with anyone. Which is one good reason to bring her back.
6) Given the recent slew of novels featuring the Catholic Church, how did you give the Vatican connection a new twist?
I got a small amount of hate mail about the first in this series, A Season for the Dead, because it was about a corrupt Vatican cardinal. There was some other book around at the time that wasn’t nice about the Catholic Church too – something to do with Da Vinci – and people thought there was a conspiracy. The truth is I haven’t been near the Church much since, as an institution anyway. Agata interested me because she’s a character who straddles two worlds; that of her faith, which is relentlessly spiritual, and that of her art, the richness and sensuality of which fascinates her. She’s on the brink of wanting to cease to be a nun, and scared of the prospect. Costa brings that to a head. The Church is important because it provides context, but no more than that.
7) How far ahead do you plan the plotlines and character twist with the Nic Costa series?
I usually have an idea of the destination and a few stops along the way. The rest is a mystery I try to tease and bludgeon out of the characters in order to get then to fill in the gaps. It’s horribly inefficient because at times they take a wrong turning. This I have learned over the years; if your story grinds to a halt on Page 182 the real problem is back at Page 133 where some stupid character send you down a dead end.
8) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
It’s not a book but a short story. Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Just a few thousand words, with a real kick in the tail. I pillaged it a little for my standalone The Promised Land, which features a protagonist called Bierce.
9) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
That’s a tough one. The movie they made of my first book Semana Santa was a stinker. Or at least I think so – maybe all authors who get tramped on by the movie business feel that way. Can I have The Godfather as a crime novel? If so – that. Provided we forget about number three completely.
10) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I’m a book fan in general. Also I like to keep the many friends I’ve met in this business so I’ll only mention dead authors in this context. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Poe, Conan Doyle, Saki, James M. Cain, Somerset Maugham and, inevitably, Ed McBain. For starters…
11) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
The Big Sleep is a pretty amazing piece of work: original, beautifully written, and incredibly funny at times too. I suppose that’s why some people are still imitating it sixty odd years after the book first came out, Though not, I hope, me.