To Know Evil
Review: Stephen Gaspar crafts an intriguing tale of betrayal and murder, set in a monastery on a remote mountaintop in northern Italy, in To Know Evil, a novel that could readily serve as an introduction for a series character.
It is the year 999, and Brother Thomas of Worms, a German monk who has traveled extensively, has been living in a Benedictine monastery for two years now. It's a simple life, one to which he is devoted. A mysterious stranger from the east, also a monk, but surly and brusque, shows up one day and is welcomed by Thomas. Soon thereafter a fellow brother is found dead at the base of a set of steep stairs. It's called an accident, but Thomas isn't sure. He suspects the stranger of being involved, but when Thomas questions the abbot of the monastery, he's told to keep to himself. Then another brother dies, again under unusual circumstances. Brother Thomas is convinced the stranger is responsible, but he has already left the monastery. Brother Thomas is beside himself, thinking a murderer has gone free, but again, the abbot tells him he is wrong. Assigned to copy scripture in the library to keep him occupied, Thomas is shown a rare manuscript by Brother Nicholas that suggests a document from hundreds of years ago may be hidden within the confines of the monastery. Always one to seek knowledge in whatever form it may take, Thomas and Nicholas begin a quest for the document, which results in the death of another brother, and leads them to a more precious relic, one that relates to, and tells of, the last days of Jesus of Nazareth.
To Know Evil is a well-written, quite literate novel, and more than just a murder mystery. The historical background, based in fact but fictionalized for the purpose of the book, is fascinating and adds an atmospheric, almost noirish, feel to the story. Comparisons to other religious artifact thrillers may be inevitable, but here the action is more ethereal than physical, and the mystery more subtle. Clues to the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the brothers are weaved into the story, and the resolution is soundly presented. What doesn't work quite as well, however, is the narrative that leads up to the "surprise" revelation at the book's conclusion, which is anything but, having been extensively foreshadowed. It's not clear what purpose this story arc serves, as it doesn't relate to the murder mystery, or to any of the principal plot points, and is really rather preposterous in what is otherwise a solidly credible story. That is appears to be added for shock value alone is a bit disappointing.
To Know Evil seems to be written as a stand-alone novel, but it could readily serve as the first mystery in a series. Given that Brother Thomas is a traveler, he could move from monastery to monastery, introducing readers to new locations and customs all the while using his keen intellect and deductive reasoning to solve medieval puzzles.
Acknowledgment: Stephen Gaspar provided a copy of To Know Evil for this review.
Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Location(s) referenced in To Know Evil: Italy
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To Know Evil by Stephen Gaspar
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: October 2009
List Price: $17.95