On the Isle of Capri, classical scholars compete against cult members searching for a long-lost Pythagorean manuscript in the latest from Goodman (The Sonnet Lover, 2007, etc.), who specializes in mysteries polished with a patina of highbrow culture.
Classics professor Sophie Chase is attending a department meeting at the University of Texas when the crazed boyfriend of her prized student Agnes, a beautiful small-town innocent, comes in shooting. The department secretary and a professor die. The meeting concerned a trip to Capri being organized by Sophie’s former mentor, and lover, Elgin, to research an important manuscript recently discovered in a house under excavation. Soon Sophie, at Elgin’s prodding, takes the place of her dead colleague on the expedition. In Italy, as first-century historian Phineas Aulus’s unbelievably detailed diary is translated daily for the researchers, readers are treated to a sordid story of sexual/religious rites in the days before the Vesuvius eruption. Meanwhile Elgin (whose sister was lost to a cult) warns Sophie that the FBI has informed him that someone from the Tetraktys, a creepy, possibly violent cult of devotees to the teachings of Pythagoras, has infiltrated the research team. Sophie has connections to Tetraktys. Her great love Ely disappeared into the Tetraktys compound years ago, although she blames her affair with Elgin as much as the cult for their breakup. Sophie doesn’t completely trust Elgin, whom she assumes is dallying with Agnes, and finds herself attracted to her wealthy host, who’s funding the project. When Agnes and Simon, another researcher, are trapped in the excavated tunnels, Agnes barely escapes with her own life. Simon dies in the hospital. Then Ely shows up claiming he has left the cult and with warnings of his own for Sophie. Whom can she trust? Readers will decipher the answer early on. For a professor, Sophie is slow on the uptake.
The ancient diary is marginally more entertaining than the contemporary romantic mystery, which is neither very romantic nor mysterious.