Carnival for the Dead, by David Hewson

Review published on October 21, 2012.Reviewed by Marleen Kennedy

Forensic pathologist Teresa Lupo has travelled from Rome to Venice to look into the disappearance of her beloved and rather bohemian aunt Sofia. It is February, and in cold and wintery Venice the Carnival is in full swing. When Teresa and her mother, shortly after arriving in town, are met by a mysterious man dressed in the costume of the Plague Doctor, complete with the horrible, long nosed mask, Teresa starts suspecting that her missing aunt may be in trouble. A visit to Sofia’s apartment only deepens Teresa’s suspicions and when her mother returns to Rome, the pathologist stays behind and takes up lodgings in her aunts rooms, determined to discover where her aunt is and why she disappeared. A letter, hand delivered to the apartment and addressed to Teresa, turns out to contain a story featuring both her and her aunt as well as an English professor Teresa has never heard of before.

When she wants to have another look at the strange story the next day, Teresa discovers that the words have disappeared from the pages and the mystery deepens further. With the police unable and unwilling to look into the disappearance of a grown and independent woman with the Carnival in full swing, it is up to Teresa to try to figure out what is going on. Further stories are delivered to Teresa and while on the surface they appear to have little or nothing to do with her missing aunt, the pathologist is convinced that they must hold clues to her aunt’s fate. But who is writing these stories? Is it Sofia herself, is it one of her friends or is it someone else altogether, someone Teresa doesn’t know but who seems to know her and her actions very well? And how do a little white dog and Carpaccio’s paintings tie into the mystery? The scientific minded Teresa will have to learn to use and trust her imagination and intuition if she is going to discover what happened to her aunt. And while she’s at it she has to stay safe and alive.

This is a wonderful mystery and a powerful thriller. It is also, possibly, something more than that. The story starts of slowly and without any real urgency. Yes, Sofia has disappeared, but she has done so before and has always turned up later, unharmed and unaware of any worry she may have caused. Surely this could be more of the same? Except that it slowly becomes clear to Teresa and the reader that this disappearance is different. There is indeed something or someone out in Venice who is determined to find and harm Sofia as well as others who might get in their way. The danger creeps up both on the characters in the book and on the reader until, near the end of the book, it all explodes in violence.

Venice during Carnival is the perfect setting for this book. The place is described as both fascinating and scary. The bright parties on the streets are contrasted by the dark and deserted alleys that more often than not turn out to be dead-ended. The cold of winter creeps not just into the character’s bones, it also affects the reader as the story becomes ever chillier.

David Hewson writes wonderful books. His characters are well-formed and are true individuals. Nobody in this book is described in terms of black and white. Everybody is nuanced which makes them interesting as characters and the story more fascinating. His descriptions of Venice are wonderful. I could see the city during Carnival almost as clearly as if I had been there, just as I could feel the danger lurking in dark corners and appreciate the beauty of the brighter places.

The ending of this book doesn’t provide clear-cut answers to every question the story poses. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not there are some supernatural powers at play here. Is the impossible actually happening, or is Teresa right to dismiss it all as one man’s madness? And while a somewhat open ending could be frustrating when reading a mystery, in this book it worked perfectly. I really like the “what-if” David Hewson left me with and I know I will enjoy pondering it for the next few days.

“The wisdom of dogs is to remind us of our own arrogance and stupidity in believing tomorrow may somehow prove more precious than today.”

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The Map of Lost Memories, by Kim Fay

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