City of Devils

Written by Diana Bretherick
Review by Geoffrey Harfield

Set in wintry 1887 Turin, this blockbuster follows James Murray, a young Scottish doctor in training with eminent, medico-crime expert, Cesare Lombroso. It is aimed at readers interested in criminology and mutilation of corpses where handwriting and body part dimensions confirm criminality. The background of Turin and its monuments, theatres, brothels, and cafes are well documented. But it is too long and ponderous a thriller.

There are five or six brutal and disgusting mutilation murders involving organ removal, even disembowelment. One, in the catacombs, makes this a startling and macabre detective thriller. Commendably, we find all the victims are crooks but, at pains to find that justifies such horror, I can only think the author, a past ex-criminal barrister, revels in the horror she has written. Sadly, the only touch of real humanity is James Murray’s love for Lombroso’s servant, a reformed prostitute, Sofia.

The author has a good mastery of multiple voices as seven speakers try to identify criminals by measuring their body parts. There are long meetings between Lombroso’s students, but when the police are involved, even Lombroso himself is suspected. There is scant action to increase the pace, and the interminable discussions, meetings, conferences and symposia drag to a halt whatever pace may have been created by the frequent discovery of victims. Whatever action there is, is often narrated with a lack of haste.

Apart from some exceptions, the characters are not fully formed, and limp writing, for instance using obsequiousness instead of servility, stands out. The book describes large important gatherings where onlookers are seen admiring important delegates, and the denouement hinges on the ash from a cigar butt concluding with strange goings-on atop a high building.

The author has worked extremely hard on this book. But I ask, ‘was it worth it?’