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by Matilde Asensi
Rayo, April 2006
464 pages
ISBN: 0060828579

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

By rights I should have hated this book. One of its main strands is religion, it's immensely talky in places, often reads like an Indiana Jones stampede around the world, and has a collection of fairly unlikeable characters. But I couldn't put it down!

Dr Ottavia Salina is a nun and head of the Restoration and Palaeography laboratory of the Vatican's Classified Archives. One day she's summed to the presence of the great and good and asked to advise on the mysterious tattoos found on the body of a dead Ethiopian man. She's given a hulking, monosyllabic captain in the Swiss Guards, and a socially inadequate Egyptian archaeologist to help her.

The dead man is somehow linked in with the disappearance of pieces of the true cross from churches and other holy places across the world. Once our unlikely trio start to investigate, they find Dante's Divine Comedy is the key to cracking the mystery.

And from then on it's a whistle-stop tour through all manner of places and dangers to the extent that occasionally it reads like a Boy's Own adventure. But never mind that -- Matilde Asensi has got a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps you turning the pages.

The book is somewhat unbalanced in that the first third is largely talk and no action, and spends a good chunk of time delivering the reader history, literature and religion lessons. But I was nonetheless transfixed by the information Asensi has up her sleeve.

I think it's fair to say that the reader who has religious faith will get something different from the book than those of us who don't -- and if you're in that second category you might just feel that there's some naivete going on in THE LAST CATO.

Speaking of which, there are several places where I thought Ottavia was guilty of blinding naivete. And unless you read the book with your brain switched off, some of her life choices are glaringly obvious. Ottavia is prickly and abrupt and not an easy person to like, but she's a strong female character who will no doubt get readers thinking about the position of women in the Catholic church -- and in other faiths, for that matter.

The ending is one that will probably polarise readers -- you'll either accept it quite happily, or roll your eyes and wonder what Asensi was on when she wrote it. It should have bothered me, but it didn't. I'll cut a good storyteller a lot of slack!

THE LAST CATO isn't your run of the mill crime novel. But I think what clinches it is that it's an unusual and intelligent book -- and sadly you don't get to describe a lot of genre fiction as that. It came along before THE DA VINCI CODE, incidentally, but has only just been translated into English (and anyone not living in the US might want to note that it's an American translation!)

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, May 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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