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by Michael Gregorio
Minotaur Books, April 2011
464 pages
ISBN: 0312650957

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The historical mysteries written by the husband and wife team named Michael Gregorio are so realistic that they are hard to read sometimes. For example, the French invasion in Prussia has left the streets of Lotingen overrun with untreated sewage both soldiers and their horses are defecating in the streets. And the sheep and cattle being butchered in the abattoirs in order to feed the soldiers are also leaving their dung in the streets. Swarms of flies and other insects are ever-present, including inside magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis' home, which has unhinged his pregnant wife.

So when the French government calls on Stiffeniis for his investigative help, he says yes on the condition that they clean the filth from the streets. The investigation takes the magistrate, who has proven his talents in two previous books, to the Baltic coast. Napoleon's military has been mining amber from the Baltic Sea to finance their war. But someone is killing the women workers who collect the amber. Could it be a doctor who wants amber for scientific purposes? Jewelers who value it above precious stones? Or nationalists who don't like to see national treasures taken out of their country?

Stiffeniis employs the scientific approach he learned from Professor Immanuel Kant isolate the crime scene, allow no one in, record everything. As he investigates, Johannes Gurten, a trainee magistrate, appears and asks Stiffeniis to mentor him. Although Stiffeniis has some misgivings Gurten might be a spy he agrees, and soon has an assistant to help with the investigation.

The Gregorio writing team gives us such precise historical scenes and descriptions that it seems as if the writers themselves have experienced the period. If there's one drawback to the story it's that the killer's identity can be deduced before the big reveal. Still, this is an intelligent, intense thriller that is likely to resonate long after you've read it. One character calls amber, with its trapped insects, "tiny windows into the past." That could well describe this book.

Lourdes Venard is a newspaper editor in Long Island, N.Y.

Reviewed by Lourdes Venard, July 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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