posted September 3, 2013

Mystery Novel in Ancient Rome Set in Area Devastated by Vesuvius

Some five years after the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius, both the region and the protagonist of the latest mystery novel by Dr. Albert Bell of the Hope College history faculty are still coping with the disaster.

“Death in the Ashes:  A Fourth Case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger” has been published this month by Perseverance Press of McKinleyville, Calif.

A family friend who owns an estate still bearing the scars of the event has been charged with murder, and the friend’s wife—whom Pliny had helped in the first novel in the series—begs Pliny to clear him.  The story brings Pliny, a real-life character from the first century A.D., back to the desolate moonscape around Vesuvius for the first time in four years.

Bell’s Pliny novels weave fact and fiction together, with Pliny’s connection to the eruption being a prominent example of the former.  In fact, two letters by Pliny to the historian Tacitus—who appears in the books as Pliny’s friend and mystery-solving companion—are the only surviving eyewitness accounts concerning the eruption, which famously buried the town of Pompeii and killed thousands, including his uncle, Pliny the Elder.

John Maddox Roberts, author of the “SPQR” mysteries, has praised “Death in the Ashes,” noting, “Bell has a fine knowledge of Roman life and he follows his characters through an intricately constructed mystery involving the classes of ancient society and the stresses between them.  This is an intriguing and involving tale from a world long past yet strangely familiar.”

The three earlier volumes in the Pliny series have also received acclaim.  Mystery writer Barbara D’Amato called the first one, “All Roads Lead to Murder,” “a wonderful book.”  The second, “The Blood of Caesar,” was named one of the Five Best Mysteries of 2008 by “Library Journal.”  “Publisher’s Weekly” said that the third, “The Corpus Conundrum,” was a “worthy alternative to the Roman historicals by such better known authors as Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis.”

The series draws on Bell's professional interest in ancient history. His scholarly work includes the book “Exploring the New Testament World,” which reviews the social, political and cultural background against which the New Testament was written, and a number of articles on topics including Pliny the Younger.

According to Bell, who is a professor of history at Hope, Pliny the Younger had held a variety of government offices in the Roman Empire, and is known through surviving letters such as his first-person account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and his investigation of the Christians in the province of Bithynia. His appellation distinguished him from his uncle, who wrote a natural history that was one of the era’s largest compendiums of science.  More information about Pliny the Younger, the books and the characters in them can be found on a website that Bell has developed, www.pliny-mysteries.com.

The new Pliny the Younger novel is Bell’s eighth work of fiction. In addition to the four Pliny mysteries, he has also written the mystery “Death Goes Dutch,” which is set in present-day Grand Rapids; “The Flute Player,” available as an e-book; and the children’s mystery “The Secret of the Lonely Grave,” which is set in contemporary Kentucky and in 2008 won the inaugural Evelyn Thurman Young Readers Book Award from Western Kentucky University Libraries. He also wrote the autobiographical “Perfect Game, Imperfect Lives: A Memoir Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Don Larsen’s Perfect Game,” which reflects on the 1956 World Series and growing up in the 1950s.

Bell has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1978. He holds a bachelor's degree from Carson Newman College, a master's from Duke University, a Master of Divinity degree from Southeastern Seminary and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina.  He and his wife have four children and a grandson.

Copies of “Death in the Ashes: A Fourth case from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger” are available for $15.95 at the college’s Hope-Geneva Bookstore, which is located on the ground level of the DeWitt Center, 141 E. 12th St., and can be called at 800-946-4673 or (616) 395-7833, as well as at other area booksellers and all online booksellers.  Electronic versions are available for most types of readers.

Bell will be signing copies of the book at the Barnes and Noble in Woodland Mall in Grand Rapids (3195 28th St., SE) on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 1 p.m., and at the Barnes and Noble in Holland (3050 Beeline Rd.) on Saturday, Sept. 28, at 1 p.m.  He will also participate in the “Local Author Night” at Schuler Books and Music in Walker (3165 Alpine Ave.) on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m.