Book Review: In the Shadow of Vesuvius by Tasha Alexander
1902, Italy. Our heroine, Lady Emily Hargreaves, is visiting the ruins of Pompeii in the company of her husband, Colin, and her dear friend, Ivy Brandon, when Ivy notes that one of the plaster casts of corpses felled in the ancient eruption sports surprisingly modern sideburns. Colin, being no stranger to investigating acts of foul play, quickly ascertains that a very recently dead man lies hidden within the plaster casing.
The Hargreaves soon establish that the unlucky fellow was a journalist named Clarence Walker, who had just a little while ago visited the dig they themselves are attached to. Ivy had previously made friends with a pair of American siblings, Benjamin and Callie Carter, who had been hired to work for Balthazar Taylor in excavating the ruins. After deciding to visit the site herself, she persuaded the Hargreaves to come along with her. The English trio soon discovers that Benjamin is a moody artist while Callie’s sunnier disposition belies the fact that she’s well aware she wouldn’t have been hired on, despite her expertise in archaeology, if Benjamin hadn’t caught Taylor’s eye while sketching in a New York museum. Callie came to the dig site with Benjamin and persuaded Taylor to give her a chance. Fortunately for her, Taylor’s sexism is more benign than active, as the following exchange between him and Emily proves:
The conversation veered to Greek literature, and Mr. Taylor and I had a lively debate about the depiction of women in the Iliad and the Odyssey. His opinions were what I would expect of any ordinary man. He carelessly tossed off the contributions of the goddesses and hardly noticed the mortal females, assuming them all to be slaves and seductresses. Most disappointing, however, was that it had never before occurred to him to consider the topic.
“The scathing look on your face tells me I’ve made a grave mistake in my analysis of the works of Homer,” he said.
“I don’t mean to offend,” I said, “But so long as you gentlemen consider the female of the species as only slightly more useful than decorative furniture, we all lose out. Think of the contributions women could make, if only we were allowed a seat at the proverbial table. The ancients had better sense than we in this regard.[“]
Emily, of course, has plenty to contribute herself as she and Colin look into who could have wanted Walker dead and, more importantly, have had the ability and opportunity to pose him as an ancient corpse, presumably to have lain undetected for far longer had Ivy not made her off-hand observation to them. Further shocks are in store for our detecting duo, however, when an unexpected visitor from Colin’s past comes knocking with news that is more welcome to some than to others.
Interspersed with the 20th-century investigations is the story of a slave living in 79 AD. Though of Greek ancestry, Kassandra is enamored of the city and empire she grows up in. Even before achieving freedom, she embarks on a career as a poet that will see her words echo throughout Pompeii. But to what avail? Not even leaving the city will spare her Vesuvius’ wrath, after she undertakes a short journey with a friend that will leave them stranded in the wake of the volcano’s ongoing eruption:
What choice did we have? We were not about to return to Pompeii with that dreadful cloud hanging over Vesuvius. The steward gave us beakers of cool water and we sat in the long garden, away from any sculptures that might tumble over should the earth shake again. And shake again it did. The hours crawled by as the black cloud above the mountain grew more and more ominous, parts of it dark, parts of it bright. Ash had started to fall, but we could not decide it we were safer inside, shielded from it, or whether the threat of additional earthquakes made remaining where we were the better choice. The sun had disappeared behind the cloud of ash, plunging us into a gloomy darkness, punctuated by an occasional burst of flame shooting from the top of the mountain. I could no longer tell what time it was.
The description of the last hours of the city is moving, especially when contrasted and then intertwined with Lady Emily’s tale. Tasha Alexander has very much done her research on Pompeii, and it shows in the wealth of detail, both in the depiction of everyday life in ancient Rome and in the excavations that would take place centuries later, for good or ill. I was also very much of a mind with our heroine when it came to the position of women, both in ancient times and in more modern, though I must admit that I found Ivy’s attitude, especially when it came to Callie and the terms of her employment, both exasperating and illogical. I did, however, very much enjoy the emotional interplay between the Hargreaves and their unexpected visitor, and imagine the subject will provide intriguing depths for many more books in the series to come.