Friday, March 3, 2017

FFB: Requiem at Rogano - Stephen Knight

THE STORY: Having just retired from the police force Inspector Reginald Brough is not finding a life of leisure to his liking. Fortuitously, he receives a letter from his nephew Nicholas who invites him to collaborate on a book called The History of Murder. Their research leads them to the discovery that a series of murders in London attributed to a killer dubbed "the Deptford Strangler" by the tabloid press are actually replications of murders that were committed in an Italian village called Rogano in the 15th century. Further research links the prophecies of Nostradamus to both sets of murders, and some startling revelations that lead them to believe that the present day victims as well as the Deptford Strangler are reincarnations of the Italian victims and killer.

CHARACTERS: In Requiem at Rogano (1979) Inspector Brough and Nicholas Calvin meet a variety of eccentrics all of whom uncannily have information related to the murders in Rogano. From Dr. Orchard who telephones Brough with an urgent message and arranges to meet with him privately to the strange old man who gives Nicholas his personal translation of some obscure passages in Nostradamus' book of eerie prophecies everyone seems to be privy to the disturbing parallels between the Deptford Strangler and the murders in Rogano. Nicholas has been having blackouts and weird dreams which he vaguely recalls. He says he was putting his hands on the necks of people he has never seen. Then Nicholas is told that he is the reincarnation of Antonio Aquilina, one of two brothers executed for the Rogano murders centuries ago. Adding to overall paranoia of the novel Nicholas keeps encountering a mysterious figure he calls "The Man with Odd Eyes" who seems to be following him everywhere. Eventually the mystery man steps out of the shadows to introduce himself as Rudolf van Galen. Galen joins forces with the two researchers when he reveals that he is the reincarnation of Giuseppe Aquilina, brother of Antonio.

All three of our main characters find it necessary to travel to Rogano to complete their research. The novel comes alive in this section. The lecturing and info dropping gives way to thrilling incidents of adventure hearkening back to cliffhanger thrillers of silent cinema and Victorian sensation novel plotting. The story increasingly becomes more and more paranoid, imbued with sinister occult influences. All the time Knight has been concocting a clever murder mystery. The final three chapters deliver several unexpected turns of events that make the book something of a tour de force in supernatural and mystery fiction.

INNOVATIONS: For the first half of the book I could not stop thinking that this fell into a subgenre of reincarnation thrillers that were so popular in the 1970s with The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and Audrey Rose probably the most well remembered thanks to their movie adaptations. Knight tries his best to put forth his understanding of reincarnation by drawing parallels from the German legend of the Doppelgänger to the Norwegian myth of the fylgja, "a soul or spirit as mortal and physical as the body itself" that emerges and forms alongside every human from the minute they are conceived. At first the notion that every character in the book is a reincarnated soul from 15th century beggars belief. And yet by the time the characters set foot in Rogano Knight manages to make sense of his idea because the novel really belongs to conspiracy theory fiction.

Knight's universe is one in which no human is controlled by free will, but rather at the mercy of a previous life. Behavior and personality are predetermined by an ominous force that allows for this transference of souls over the ages. Some specific examples: Nicholas finds himself repulsed by the sight and smell of meat. He learns he has visited a male brothel and apparently had sex with another man. Why? Because Antonio Aquilina, his former soul, was both a vegetarian and a gay man. Or so he learns from Rudolf van Galen. The truth behind Nicholas' strange behavior transformation is, in fact, much more bizarre.

If the reader fully embraces that Requiem at Rogano is actually a form of conspiracy theory fiction, then the book that readers may find it easier to draw comparisons to is The Da Vinci Code. It is not only Knight's obsession with Nostradamus's writings that made me think of Dan Brown. The climactic revelation about the motivation for the Rogano murders having to do with the viability of Christianity was his crowning touch. The solution and killer's motive are jaw dropping quite frankly. It made me reassess the entire structure of the novel. When Brough delivers the truly shocking conclusion the reader discovers that all along the novel was an ingeniously plotted detective novel with all the evidence and clues right there in front of him.

QUOTES: "The idea of the fetch, once prevalent in Great Britain, is revived every time we read newspaper reports of ghosts of the living appearing at the moment of death to relatives and or dear friends. In Ireland the fetch is often though to haunt its own human double."

"I am inured against shock in such cases. [...] The great lesson I learned [in India] from first-hand experience was that almost anything is possible."

"Herr van Galen has only demonstrated what you say you have believed all your life, what Christians have taught for nineteen hundred years. Man has a soul. What's so monstrous about that?"

"We speak of enormous issues, far beyond our comprehension, and yet we use words like certainty and truth with such confidence. Most of us don't even know for certain that our heart will make its next beat. Do we, in fact, really know anything at all?"

THINGS I LEARNED: As mentioned above Nostradamus and his oracular writing are featured prominently. I learned that there are numerous translations, some of which tinker with his original wording in order to make the prophecies more adaptable to modern events and historical figures. Knight draws on some of these translations but also treats us to literal translations and his own interpretation of those sentences. Much of it is laughable, but some of it is clever. Reading someone's interpretation of a prophecy applied to a man called Hitler who will rise to power in the year 1939 in a book set in 1902 and yet published in 1979 is hardly impressive or awe inspiring as was probably his intent. The characters are impressed, but I was not.

Learning about the fylgja was an eye-opener for me. Knight only briefly mentions it in the novel, but further online research was enlightening. The word means "follower" in Norwegian. The concept as I learned on a Norse mythology website is more akin to the idea of a witch's familiar and the fylgja is always in the form of an animal. In some variations of the myth the human can actually shapeshift into the fylgja.

Towards the end of the book there is a lot of talk about the Inquisition which I learned was not geographically confined to Spain. There were acolytes of the Inquisition carrying out punishments, torture and executions on heretics all over Europe including Italy, France and even England.

Stephen Knight in 1979 as seen on
the rear DJ of the US edition
(photo: Fay Godwin)
THE AUTHOR: Stephen Knight was a reporter for most of his life. Requiem at Rogano was his only novel. Prior to this book he was known for his non-fiction true crime book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), quite the bestseller during his lifetime. While working as a reporter he met a man who claimed to know the truth behind the murders and the identity of the infamous serial killer. Clearly that investigative work influenced the conspiracy theory aspect that permeates Requiem at Rogano. I think his was the book that started the mad obsession with solving the Ripper case; it certainly was one of the earliest and best selling versions. It has had multiple printings since 1976 with the most recent being a reissue in 2000 from HarperCollins.

EASY TO FIND? The quick answer is the best answer for the majority of you out there. Valancourt Books has reprinted the book under its original British title Requiem at Rogano. Their reprint includes a brief foreword by Bernard Taylor, horror writer and one time collaborator with Knight on a true crime book. As with most small press distribution methods these days the book is available only through internet book sites. My experience says that they unfortunately do not distribute to brick and mortar stores. For those of you who like the smell and feel of an old book I found 55 copies of the 1979 edition for sale, a mix of US and UK editions, and nearly all of them offered at less than $5. Such a deal!

3 comments:

  1. " Reading someone's interpretation of a prophecy applied to a man called Hitler who will rise to power in the year 1939 in a book set in 1902 and yet published in 1979 is hardly impressive or awe inspiring as was probably his intent. The characters are impressed, but I was not."

    This comment really made me laugh. Thanks John for an engaging review. The book seems very interesting. It also looks that you are having a good time with your reading lately. May such good times continue.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had so much to talk about with this one that I forgot an aspect you'd find interesting. Inspector Brough spent many years in India and he talks about the cultural and spiritual epiphany he had there and how it has influenced his worldview. One of the quotes I cited above loosely alludes to his past in India, but throughout the book he constantly brings it up.

      Delete
    2. You might not have mentioned India, John, but I definitely thought of India when I read this sentence: "Knight's universe is one in which no human is controlled by free will, but rather at the mercy of a previous life."

      This is close to the concept of re-incarnation where the deeds of our previous life determine the course of our present life.

      Delete