Gregorio, Michael - 'Days of Atonement'
The novel DAYS OF ATONEMENT by Michael Gregorio is the second book in a series which features Hanno Stiffeniis, a Prussian magistrate during the Napoleonic wars. The first book CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL REASON was set in Konisberg, where Stiffeniis and the philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to solve a series of brutal killings.
Michael Gregorio is the husband and wife writing team of Michael G Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio who live in the beautiful Italian town of Spoleto. Living in sunny Italy has not prevented them from recreating with great attention to detail the bleak landscape of East Prussia's frozen forests and towns in the harsh winter of 1807. The "author" also covers the subjects of rising nationalism, anti-Semitism, Jewish emancipation, and the emerging sciences with some skill.
One year after the Prussian defeat at Jena-Auerstadt, the town of Lotingen is under occupation by the French Army. Hanno Stiffeniis, the narrator, is summoned to investigate the murder of the three Gottewald children in a lonely cottage in the forest. Serge Lavedrine, a French officer, who has both an interest in the fledging science of criminology, and Hanno's meetings with the now deceased Kant, will coordinate their investigation and smooth any conflicts with the French authorities. Of the victims the two male children have been sexually mutilated and the children's mother is missing, believed killed.
Hanno has to leave his wife Helena and his own children to travel to the remote fortress of Kamenetz on the Russian border, where the father Bruno Gottewald, a Prussian officer, is stationed. But when Hanno reaches the fortress, which is commanded by the fanatical nationalist General Katowice, he finds that Gottewald has been mysteriously killed on a training exercise.
On his return to Lotingen he discovers that the crushed corpse of a woman has been found in a warehouse. The whole Gottewald family has been wiped out in just a few weeks. Is this an act of the French to increase their power or is it a tragic coincidence?
Local opinion suspects it is the Jews seeking the blood of Christian children for their rituals? Gregorio immerses us so deeply in the ambience and mood of the time that the reader does not find this ludicrous 'medieval blood libel' to be out of keeping with the story. It is ironic that the Jews are emancipated by the advance of the Napoleonic armies, and yet in about a century France itself will be torn apart by the turmoil associated with that notorious miscarriage of justice, the Dreyfus Case.
Hanno and the charming schemer Lavendrine expand their investigations using the feminine intuition of Hanno's wife, Helena, and the very primitive sciences of cranial phrenology, crime scene analysis, skull reconstruction and forensic psychiatry. We are introduced to the strange theories of mesmerism or "animal magnetism", and the Jewish ghetto mysticism that predicts a great disaster to come from "here in Prussia". Hanno and Lavendrine travel to Konisberg and search Immanuel Kant's papers in order to find a motive for the killings, but the answers lie both closer to home and in the dark fortress of Kamenetz.
When you are able to read a 444 page book in only a couple of days it is usually a sign of an engrossing and enjoyable read, and this is the case with DAYS OF ATONEMENT. I did guess most of the solution quite early on, after all there are numerous clues, but this did not spoil my enjoyment of the book. This novel is all about immersing the reader in the historical period, and keeping you guessing till the end with its many red herrings.
I will look forward to Michael Gregorio's next book, because this novel made me want to learn much more about the period.
Norman Price, England