Unholy Awakening, By Michael Gregorio

Prussian bloodsucker has real bite

The publishers tout Unholy Awakening as a "dark, gothic, vampiric mystery set in 19th-century Prussia", and it's hard to argue with this summary.

With their first book, Critique of Criminal Reason, the husband-and-wife team who are Michael Gregorio managed to shoehorn references to the philosopher Kant into a thriller scenario. That book was a sweeping piece set in the Age of Enlightenment, with Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis enlisting Kant to aid him in investigating a series of violent deaths in Konigsberg.

It was clear that attention had to be paid to a major new talent in the period-crime field. Subsequent books (Days of Atonement and A Visible Darkness) have added lustre to the Gregorio brand. The reader of Unholy Awakening will notice fewer philosophical underpinnings in this gruesome narrative, but the powerful sense of time and place – and the minatory atmosphere – are in place.

A grisly discovery is made in the town of Lotingen: a woman's body, the corpse exsanguinated. Stiffeniis is perturbed by a case which is more than ordinary murder. The town is agog at the appearance of the beautiful Emma Rimmele, travelling with a coffin as part of her baggage. Tongues wag even more furiously when a series of mutilated bodies are found, one near Emma's house. A word – previously the province of the superstitious – is bandied about: vampire.

The Gregorio duo undertakes some heavy-duty historical research for each Stiffeniis investigation. When preparing Unholy Awakening, they came across an 18th-century tract about a phenomenon that had been widely reported in central and eastern Europe, "vampire fever".

People were digging up cemeteries in search of the undead, believing that they were responsible for plagues and other epidemics. The tract's author concluded that the "fever" was a form of hysteria brought on by an inability to explain the physical nature of death and decay. All this material is seamlessly subsumed within the imperative of a mesmeric yarn. Unlike Gregorio's earlier work, the frissons here are more likely to quicken the pulse than stimulate the mind. But such is the level of storytelling that few are likely to miss that extra dose of intellectual reinforcement. And the fastidious Stiffeniis is bidding fair to be the most irresistible investigator in the field of bygone bloodshed.

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