Robert Harris is back with another intelligent thriller that explores historical events and enlightens his readers in "Pompeii," an exciting adventure set in the three days leading up to the famed eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Roman times.
Though a missing person triggers the novel's plot, this is Harris' first thriller that does not use the structure of a mystery to propel its story arc. Marcus Attilius is a young engineer called in to investigate the failure of the Aqua Augusta, the Roman aqueduct that brings water to the towns downstream from Pompeii.
In response to the pleadings of Corelia, the daughter of Ampliatus, Pompeii's most important and corrupt man, Attilius tries to stop her father from feeding a slave to voracious moray eels. The man is being punished for improperly carung for his master's prize fish, when the real culprit is sulfur-tainted water from the aqueduct.
Over the next two days, Attilius attempts to repair the aqueduct and investigate the strange occurrences around Vesuvius that are causing the problems. All the while he is harassed by Pompeii's power structure, which wants the water turned back on in time for a festival, and pursued by Corelia, who sees him as her escape from a cruel father and the repulsive husband he has picked for her.
His investigation brings him together with Admiral Pliny, the (real life) premier natural scientist of first-century Rome. Once the volcanic eruption starts, they together voyage into the storm of rock and ash, Pliny to record the events and Attilius to rescue Corelia.
Harris is known for labyrinthine plots and even more complicated characters, but that's not the case here. The plot, which owes a lot to "Jaws" and "Dante's Peak," is really not the thing, and the characters are fairly cut and dried.
Attilius is valiant and dedicated, and Corelia is attractive, passionate, and decent. Ampliatus, meanwhile, is thoroughly corrupt and cruel, nothing more than naked ambition with legs.
Because Harris is a thriller writer with impeccable literary credentials, he is subject to overanalysis by the pretentious. Some critics have claimed that "Pompeii" is his commentary on the fat, happy and decadent America before the 9/11 terror attacks.
This says more about the critics' biases than the author's intent. In fact, he states his purpose quite baldly near the end of the book, as Pliny sees the destruction sweeping toward him. Only the people it is aimed at could purposely miss the point:
"Men mistook measurement for understanding. And they always had to put themselves at the center of everything. That was their greatest conceit. The earth is becoming warmer - it must be our fault! The mountain is destroying us - we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little - a comfort to think that these things are somehow connected to our behavior, that if we only lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded. But here was nature, sweeping toward him - unknowable, all-conquering, indifferent - and he saw in her fires the futility of human pretensions."
Harris is obviously fascinated by the engineering feats of the Romans of 2,000 years ago, who had a better system of delivering water than much of today's China despite using ancient technology. He keeps his descriptions limited to terms easily understood by nonengineers, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
Most historical novels that deal with this time focus on the superstition or the cruelty of the period. Harris points out that the achievement of the aqueduct system took real scientific knowledge, and his quotes from Pliny give the ancients their due by showing that there were scientists who were vitally interested in the natural world well before the Enlightenment.
The last part of "Pompeii," once the eruption starts, is as exciting as anything you will read in a thriller this year. Harris's awe at the power of nature and his descriptive powers give "Pompeii" the irresistible forward motion of a lava flow.