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A Visible Darkness    by Michael Gregorio order for
Visible Darkness
by Michael Gregorio
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Minotaur, 2011 (2009)
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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio (the husband-and-wife team writing under the pen name of Michael Gregorio) offer fans of erudite historical mysteries a superb tale in A Visible Darkness, the third installment in their highly recommended Hanno Stiffaniis series.

As a magistrate in Lottingen, Prussia, Stiffaniis and his family are struggling to survive amidst the grotesque miasma that overwhelms their city in 1808. Foul air, filth, and flies - all of which seem to have accompanied the French army when it invaded and occupied Prussia - combine to make day-to-day life unbearable. Stiffaniis is in the midst of prosecuting a case involving this stomach-churning pollution when he is ordered by the French commanding general to drop everything and travel to the Baltic coast where he is to investigate the murder of a young woman.

Forced by the French to leave his wife and children behind in unwholesome Lottingen, Stiffaniis grudgingly obeys the orders and travels alone to the scene of the crime where the woman had been unspeakably mutilated. The indefatigable sleuth realizes immediately that he has been thrust into a most difficult case. To Stiffaniis, it is almost as if his deceased mentor, Immanuel Kant, had reached out from beyond the grave and issued an insurmountable challenge.

Initially, the steadfastly sensible Stiffaniis believes that France's depletion of a Prussian resource - amber - might be at the root of the woman's mysterious death. Amber, after all, had been 'the single item representing the wealth, the history and the culture of Prussia.' It was, indeed, 'a gift from God.' Thus, it could not now be 'any surprise that the French were interested' in stripping 'the greatest gift of the Baltic' away from the Prussians. Applying the same methods of investigation that he had learned from Kant, Stiffaniis soon learns about the ruthless 'greed and violence that {amber now} unleashes' upon people on the Baltic coast.

Then, when Stiffaniis least suspects it, even though the carnage and brutality continues to escalate all around him, the investigation becomes intensely personal. With tensions escalating between the French and the Prussians (and with Stiffaniis caught in the middle), and - more significantly - with his own family suddenly in danger, Stiffaniis discovers that he is up against an elusive and brilliant criminal. Trapped like the insects that had long ago been embedded forever in pieces of precious amber, Stiffaniis feels like he and his family may now be trapped within a diabolically irrational series of crimes from which there may be no escape.

Building upon the intricate plotting patterns and compelling characterizations established by the first two installments (Critique of Criminal Reason and Days of Atonement), this most recent historical mystery featuring the Prussian magistrate is sophisticated, thought provoking, and entertaining. A Visible Darkness, like its predecessors, is another powerful tale of 19th century murder and mayhem in which the philosophical realm of rationalism must contend with the irrational perversities of evil. Do yourself a favor: Read all three of these novels, and treat yourself to fascinating adventures in which the fictional origins of forensic criminology are on vivid display.

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