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SIGNATURES in STONE WINNER DAPHNE DU MAURIER AWARD FOR MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE WRITING BEST MYSTERY OF 2013
"I was enthralled by Lappin’s Italy… and by that god/demon/boar that flits through its landscape” Nina Auerbach, critic, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves
“Lappin is a modern day Agatha Christie with prose that is like eating dark chocolate or sipping a glass of fine wine — the story continues to entice your senses and simply gets better and better the more you partake. Not one to hurry to the plot, she unveils the scenes piece by piece, character by character and leaves her own signatures for you to find along the way.” Vikki Walton I Love a Mystery
from LIBRARY JOURNAL
Lappin, Linda. Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery. Caravel: Pleasure Boat Studio. 2013. 285p. ISBN 9781929355907. pap. $18. MYS
Ensconced by her forceful publisher Nigel in a rundown villa in the Italian town of Bomarzo, writer Daphne DuBlanc (Marilyn Mosley is her nom de plume) is stuck for an idea for her next Edna Rutherford mystery. It doesn’t help that she has smoked the last of the hashish she secretly brought from Paris. “Without inspiration I could not write. What was needed was a new batch of signatures, those curious messages our waking life sends us from our unconscious, which I have come to see as promptings from the muse, and even as a spiritual guide for my own existence.” But as she begins to explore the villa, which is filled with priceless artistic treasures, and the neighboring 16th-century sculpture garden known as the Monster Park, Daphne finds signs and clues—a broken head of a china doll, a pearl button, an ancient map—to deeper mysteries about this strange place and its inhabitants: the gatekeeper Manu and his daughter Amelia, Professor Firestone, an American art history scholar writing about the Monster Garden, Clive, a novice painter, and even the down-at-heel aristocratic Nigel.
Verdict Deftly mixing fascinating art history and murder with an exotic atmospheric setting (the Bomarzo garden actually exists), dramatic historical period (1928 fascist Italy), and fully fleshed characters, Lappin (The Etruscan) has written a hallucinatory gothic mystery in which no one is as they appear. Daphne is a most memorable, if a bit unreliable (thanks to her opium habit), narrator. Readers looking for an intelligent summer mystery will find much to savor here.—Wilda Williams, Library Journal
The Etruscan by Linda Lappin
Reviewed by Pat Aakhus
Winter 2005 The Southern Indiana Review
The Etruscan by Linda Lappin is an intelligent, atmospheric novel with finely drawn characters and beautiful language and style. It is not easy to put down. The feminist protagonist Harriet falls in love with a charismatic count, extraordinary in the tradition of Cornelius Agrippa, Cagliostro or Conte de St. Germaine, who materializes and disappears into the Etruscan landscape. Her well bred friends from Russell Square manage to save her from her fatal obsession by wiping out all evidence of his improbable existence, removing her from the wild landscape (wild at least to an American and her proper English friends), while simultaneously driving Harriet into madness and a long residence in a mental institution.
This engaging story is told from the point of view of the Bloomsbury friends, whose own dark secrets are incidentally revealed (but only to us) as they read her personal journal of the love affair. The long hidden guilty truths remain hidden, and as we learn about them, as Harriet stalks her phantasm-lover, the solution to the mystery which propels the novel retreats. Is the Conte Federigo Del Re faithful; is he a real count, or even a real man; a fantasy or an Etruscan ghost? This shape-shifting Rochester will not be tracked down, unmasked or domesticated.
Like the ephemeral count and the exotic landscape, Harriet is a fascinating, vivid character. To what extent are her civilized friends responsible for her affair, her madness? Certainly they create an opium addiction which makes Harriet “manageable,” protecting themselves from incriminating revelations about their own actions. Lappin handles this weaving of related pasts deftly, providing one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Because the novel is primarily told from the point of view of “disinterested” characters reading Harriet’s journal, a strong sense of voyeurism pervades the narrative. Of course we too are culpable, racing through the pages to find the Conte Federigo Del Re, hoping that he will not disappoint us and show up one more time in some surprising incarnation.
Harriet is an American, and therefore an outsider, notwithstanding her predilection for Turkish silk trousers, outspokenness and photographing Etruscan tombs. She might have been lifted from one of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories or is perhaps an eccentric portrait of Mansfield herself. For she is neither passive nor paralyzed like many of Mansfield’s or Woolf’s heroines, nor self victimizing like Chopin’s. But Lappin is a twenty-first century novelist and although the first wave of feminism is far behind us, not all has been resolved. While possessed of a fortune and entrée into European society, still Harriet is a victim of abuse and of the machinations of her controlling upper class cousins. It is a working class woman who ultimately saves her, rescuing Harriet’s past, and therefore her identity.
Lappin has done an admirable job providing authenticity in every detail of time and setting, while providing provocative questions about the extent to which women are driven to hide abuse, and the effects of that suppression. There is no preaching in this novel; the issues are conveyed subtly and believably. Harriet would have had some things to discuss with Virginia Woolf, a victim of sexual abuse plagued by clinical depression throughout her life, had such things been discussed in Bloomsbury.
Lappin’s elegant prose simultaneously creates suspense and evokes a precise setting in which supernatural events are realistically grounded. Her polished style and subtly achieved atmosphere effects recall the works of M. R. James and the Brontes; her special effects are psychological, driven by landscape, deftly drawn interiors and characters, rather than spectacle. In a time when the grotesque and the bizarre comprise plot and character in so much of contemporary literature, Harriet’s sexy Count who dresses up as a wild boar, supplies her with mushrooms, porcupines and a carnelian ring is a refreshing change.
“He raised the lantern to a niche, hollowed in the wall, where the remains of a fresco were barely visible, half-eaten by the moss, but I could clearly discern the outline of a ship. I knew what it was: the ship of death. I had seen the small model of one in his study, “La nave della morte,” I murmured, pointing to the image. The Count nodded. “Each one of us much prepare his ship,” he said, “and load it up with wine and grain and oil, for the long journey home.”
Now he shone the light towards the back wall of the tomb where an even larger doorway stood. Approaching it, I saw that it was not a real door at all, but merely an image sculpted in the wall. I asked f the builder had meant to add another chamber.
“No,” he said. “That is the door of the soul through which the dead exited our world and sailed beyond time. Sometimes you find such doors carved in the rock, other times only painted.”
I reached out to run my hand across the chill stone surface. The tomb wall was beaded with cold drops of moisture, and my hand left a greasy streak upon the stone. “What did they envision on the other side? I asked.
The Count set the lantern down at the base of the carved doorway. The flame flared high and our shadows danced, huge, then merged on the tomb wall. He took a step toward me and intoned in a low voice, “Beyond that door lies an unknown world, where men and women…” here he paused like a skilful actor for dramatic effect. His face glowed orange in the lamplight, “…where even you and I…can become immortal, if we choose.” (pg. 98)
With the astonishing success of Da Vinci Code, it is clear that the supernatural in a context of religion, art and history, is of immense interest to many readers. Both novels begin with an art work held in museums (the Louvre and British Museum), but there the similarities end. Lappin’s artfully written novel inhabits a supernatural landscape, but alludes subtly to hints of Etruscan culture, rather than appropriating New Age fabricated pseudo-legend. Character rather than spectacle drives this first novel, and Lappin’s gift for atmosphere places her amongst the finest writers of gothic art, not genre.
Mary Jane Cryan reviews The Etruscan : An intriguing first novel from the pen of Italy-based poet and translator, Linda Lappin, “The Etruscan” is unique for its setting, the northern Lazio area known as Etruria or Tuscia. The original inhabitants of the area, The Etruscans, are evoked in all their mystery and the author uses her knowledge to entice the reader into their vanished world. The first detailed descriptions of the Etruscan sites can be found in D.H. Lawrence’s “Etruscan Places ” published in the 1930’s , Augustus Hare’s “Days Near Rome” (1875) and George Dennis’s “Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria” (1883) . Lappin’s novel adds that aura of magic and mystery that the non-fiction and scholarly books lack. She describes the smell and feel of the necropoli, the rock carved tombs and frescoed burial chambers that surround the villages she has come to know intimately over the past few decades.
These are “fairy precints” where mushrooms may cause hallucinations, wild boars may hide beneath Carnival masks, medieval towers may be home to archaic beings entrusted with knowledge forgotten by modern men.
If the book is partly autobiographical, the author disguises the fact by placing her characters in the past, adding a retrò flavor which enhances the entire story. The action takes place in the 1920’s, and her heroines are symbolic of the evoltion of the woman’s role in society at that time. Of the two female characters Sarah, represents the conventional woman, unhappy in her sterile marriage while her childhood friend, the intrepid trouser-wearing photographer Harriet, is the modern, emancipated woman, the one who suffers the most . “The Etruscan” evokes the Italian novels of E.M. Forster and Edith Wharton and it is easy to imagine the story transposed to the cinema world. It is also reminiscent of “The Marble Faun”, for the story revolves around the mysterious Count, who appears, then disappears, similar to Donatello in Hawthorne’s classic . Is he an imaginary being or an actual encounter that Harriet Sackett makes as she explores the Etruscan necropoli of Norchia and Barbarano Romano? Like Hawthorne, it seems that Lappin also cannot conceive of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no picturesque ambiguity.
The diary written by Harriet with its earthy setting and characters, the sense of foreboding and mystery enveloping the Etruscan countryside contrasts sharply with the sections set in London and the staid British men , Stephen and Wimbly. Long-kept secrets and skeletons in the family closet entwine the members of the cast and at the book’s close the only truly noble character is probably the timeless and noble Federigo.
Finalist, ForeWord Book of the Year, Fiction
IPPY Gold Medal Winner, Historical Fiction
Finalist Next Generation Indie Awards, Historical Fiction
A dazzling piece of literary sorcery" -- David Lynn, editor Kenyon Review
"Linda Lappin has immersed herself in Mansfield's life, and merged from it with a story to to narrate on her own terms, a fiction charged with the enthusiasm of a good researcher, and carried through with a novelist's verve." Vincent O'Sullivan, editor The Letters of Katherine Mansfield Vol V
FROM RAIN TAXI Review of KATHERINE'S WISH
Wordcraft of Oregon ($15)
Many literati recognize Katherine Mansfield’s name but are fuzzy about her context and accomplishments. A New Zealand native, Mansfield is lauded as one of our language’s great writers of short fiction. She had ties to the famed Bloomsbury Group active in London in the early 1900s, a collection of artists, writers, and other English intellectuals who demonstrated a bisexual freedom ahead of their time.
After twenty years of fascination with Mansfield, and fifteen years of active research, Linda Lappin confidently expands our knowledge in her latest novel, Katherine’s Wish. While the relationships, events, and inner musings of the characters are fictionalized, Lappin has built on textual evidence from journals, letters, and diary entries in order to adhere to “an overall sense of truth” which she renders as her own mosaic. Her writing style, with its rhythm, flow, and sensual detail, richly evokes the significant social scene of a vanished era.
Katherine Mansfield was deeply committed to achieving excellence at her craft. In one section, propped on pillows in bed, she scribbles a ditty about her absent husband—“Who’s the man as cold as stone / to leave a wife like you alone?”—and concludes that her only solution to loneliness and disappointment is to write:
She must not hold back out of false modesty or propriety. She must tell all; she must deposit her few grains, her residue of truth. She must not fear that friends or acquaintances might recognize themselves in unflattering portraits. . . . It was not their personalities . . . she wanted to describe now, but rather types, situations, conditions of existence in which anyone . . . might recognize themselves, if only for an instant. There was nothing personal about it.
Despite loneliness, growing illness and physical disability, Katherine perseveres. “The valve would open to release a rush of words like water from a long-trapped spring.”
Set against the backdrop of war-torn 1920’s Europe, the three main characters are fully realized: Mansfield, the consummate artist, willful, critical, and obsessed; her self-satisfied, priggish, and adoring husband, British literary critic John Middleton Murry; and Ida Constance Baker, Katie’s plodding devotee and handmaiden since they were schoolgirls together. Leonard and Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and Frieda, and other notables appear as social intimates.
Like any writer worth her salt, Linda Lappin never gets in the way of her characters fulfilling their destinies. The book probably could have included more about Mansfield’s background to help bridge the unsettling disparity between her father’s wealth and her own financial situation, which often leads her to despair and degradation. But Katherine’s Wish is first and foremost the compelling story of an artist fighting against time. Long after the last page, thoughts of her linger like an exotic scent, as if, anticipating other guests, she simply stepped from the room to display a vase of flowers or a platter’s mounded figs. --Joyce J. Townsend