Yesterday I finished reading The Garden of Evil, by David Hewson. I’d say that I 90% liked it! Like the novels of Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon, both writers whom I admire, it is set in Italy and, like them, David Hewson succeeds in creating a rich and complex portrait of the country. It would be ungenerous to say that it is Italy itself that unleashes the power of these authors, but all the same I’d love to be able to spend six months there in order to see what effect it might have on my own writing! David Hewson is also clearly an expert on art and manages to write about it extensively in the book without ramming his virtuosity down the reader’s throat, something that is hard to do and which I admire greatly in writers who manage to pull it off. Indeed, Caravaggio is almost the anti-hero of this novel – the artist and his work both cast a long shadow over the intervening centuries and are made to exert a profound effect on the present-day characters.
So why would I give the novel only nine marks out of ten?
Well, the protagonist is a detective (called Costa) whose wife is murdered at the beginning of the novel. Despite the fact that Costa is supposed to be driven by his grief to capture her killer (who is also the killer of several other young women), the depiction of his anguish never really seems to work. In fact, he seems instead to be almost inappropriately concerned about Sister Agata, an other-worldly religious woman who sets out to help him (and whose character is drawn with a considerable degree of brilliance). Sustaining the reader’s belief in the strong emotion felt by a character for the length of an entire book is difficult, of course, but I can think of crime writers who have succeeded. There is, for example, Elizabeth George’s portrayal of Inspector Lynley in the novels that follow the murder of his wife; or the way in which John Le Carré manages to convince us that Smiley’s habitual lugubriousness is owing to infidelities committed by his wife many years before.
I think that The Garden of Evil is a good novel and I much enjoyed reading it, but I still feel that it falls short in this respect.