A series of fictional murders in 19th-century Italy tests the theories of a real-life criminologist.
James Murray, a student of the renowned Dr. Joseph Bell in Edinburgh, has come to Turin to learn everything professor Cesare Lombroso can teach him about the new science of criminal anthropology. When the murdered and mutilated body of one of Lombroso’s experimental subjects is found propped up against the monument to the dead in Piazza Statuto, with a note in blood reading “A Tribute to Lombroso,” James wonders why his new mentor is content to leave the matter to two investigating branches of the police instead of using his expertise to find the killer. Instead, Lombroso seems focused on a symposium that brings together some of the greatest scientific minds in the world—some of whom appear to be intent on deflating the supremely self-confident Lombroso. A second murder with another mutilated body makes James wonder whether the murderer is using the corpses’ body parts to symbolize elements of Lombroso’s best-known textbook. But that theory doesn’t explain why the killer carved upside-down crosses on the victims’ shoulders or why there are two different styles of handwriting in the taunting notes to Lombroso or why James keeps feeling that someone is following him. As murder follows murder, not only Lombroso but the woman James has come to love are threatened, and James is forced to ask uncomfortable questions about his own dark past and possibly darker future in a tale that tries but fails to maintain suspense.
Bretherick, a lecturer in criminology, brings earnest zeal, if not graceful prose or skillful pacing, to her debut novel. Although her erudition can make for heavy going, the personal issues of her fictional hero offer some relief from the pedantry of the historical Lombroso and his colleagues.