Carol Goodman's thriller The Night Villa is a good, old fashioned mystery novel with a feminist twist. Its extremely winning heroine is the brilliant, daring and romantically troubled classics professor Sophie Chase, whose academic specialty, ancient religious cults, is about to land her in a world of trouble. Any historical whodunit with a secret society driving its plot must inevitably shiver in the long shadow of Dan Brown's blockheaded blockbuster, but where The Da Vinci Code was flagrant, grotesque and ultimately obvious, The Night Villa manages to be subtle, surprising and even edifying.
The novel begins with a bang—several of them, in fact. Sophie's favorite student (the lovely, if naive, Agnes Hancock) is defending her application for a prestigious research fellowship called the Papyrus Project, a multinational effort to decipher previously illegible ancient papyri using new computer imaging technology. As Agnes finishes her presentation to a faculty panel, her crazed ex-boyfriend enters shooting. Two of Sophie's friends and colleagues are killed, and Sophie is shot in the chest before the killer turns his gun on himself.
Sophie, it turns out, knows a thing or two about manic ex-boyfriends. When she was a graduate student, the love of her life ran off to join a bizarre Pythagorean cult called the Tetraktys, whose disciples are obsessed with numbers and arcane symbolism. In the aftermath of the shooting, instead of convalescing peacefully at home, Sophie decides that she too will travel to Italy with Agnes and the other Papyrus Project scholars.
In Goodman's deftly crafted plot, Sophie's romantic past and scholarly future are all bound up in the Papyrus Project, which is being funded by a software billionaire, obsessed with classical antiquity, who has built an exact replica of the Villa della Notte on the Isle of Capri. (The original sits in Herculaneum, the town next door to Pompeii.) This ersatz villa houses a state-of-the-art "multispectral imaging lab" and serves as a very upscale dormitory for the staff of the Papyrus project. "I'd be living in luxury at a villa, soaking in a replica of a real Roman bath, and eating plenty of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella," Sophie muses. "What more could you want?" Indeed—and what classicist on earth could resist the twin sirens of luxury and academic discovery?
So it's off to the Bay of Naples, where Goodman assembles a glamorous and goofily named international cast of characters reminiscent of Agatha Christie at her best. There's John Lyros, the lyrically inclined billionaire behind it all; Maria Prezziotti, a sexy Italian archaeologist who may or may not have a religious axe to grind; and sweet young Agnes Hancock, who plays the ingénue and innocent lamb—perhaps. Our heroine's own name seems a bit overdetermined for a classicist who's also a sleuth. (Sophie, of course, is from the Greek sophia, for wisdom.) And let's not forget the dashing head of the Papyrus project, Dr. Lawrence, who just happens to have been Sophie's academic adviser (and erstwhile lover) and whose first name is—don't laugh—Elgin. As in marbles.
This is all silly fun, and only a truly grumpy reader could object. Besides, there's nothing silly about the plot, which is complicated, thrilling and even manages a couple of jaw-dropping surprises. Goodman, whose previous novels include The Sonnet Lover, The Seduction of Water and The Ghost Orchid, toggles snappily back and forth between the gang at the villa and the scrolls they're busy scanning and deciphering, which (naturally!) reveal a mysterious ancient cult and a conspiracy that parallels and sheds light on present events. The document everyone's dying to read is the private journal of one Phineas Aulus, a first century Roman historian and notorious manuscript thief. His diary, carbonized like countless other papyri when Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., possibly spills the beans not only about the last days of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but also the whereabouts of a key Pythagorean text long believed lost, which is coveted by scholars and Tetraktys devotees alike. "Phineas Aulus might have come here expressly to witness the rites practiced at the Villa della Notte," Sophie thinks. "He was, after all, a connoisseur of the exotic and the depraved. And now...those mysteries lie curled tightly in on themselves within a charred papyrus roll, like a butterfly asleep in its chrysalis, awaiting the light of modern science to set them free."
Goodman's book isn't perfect. Though the plot is sexy and relentless, there's plenty to irritate even an amateur classicist or archaeologist. To make sure all her readers are onboard, Goodman often resorts to the tired and annoying device of having characters who would, if the context rang true, certainly not need to explain the Eleusinian Mysteries, or remind one another just when Vesuvius erupted. And Goodman's ruined Roman villas are, when necessary, suspiciously intact, her papyri suspiciously legible, and her scholars suspiciously capable (and speedy!) at sight translation.
But let us not nitpick. This is not meant to be great literature: In fact, Goodman's novel falls squarely in the middle of the continuum between the addictive stupidity of The Da Vinci Code and the utter brilliance of Umberto Eco's unparalleled The Name of the Rose. Bibliomania, sinister cults, a lost ancient work brought to light, a dangerous leader, an innocent victim turned villain, all culminating in a dramatic, Indiana Jones-style romp through ancient tunnels—Goodman's novel has it all, plus an extremely satisfying ending. The Night Villa is beach reading smart enough for back-to-school—the perfect book for summer's close.
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Amanda did great. Love her choices.