Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery

Pleasure Boat

Review by Walter Cummins

Linda Lappin’s novel, which was the overall winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense in 2014, is now out in a new edition ten years later. Because I had reviewed the original publication, I took this as an opportunity to emulate Vivian Gornick’s approach in Unfinished Business, where she writes about her changing responses to books she has read and re-read over decades.  Often, she finds, she has an entirely different understanding and interpretation, as she says to herself, “Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago?” In my case, I have the same positive opinion I had of Signatures in Stone in my first review, but this time I have a clearer grasp of the force of one of Lappin’s central motifs.

Initially, I concentrated on the “signatures” half of the title. This time I’m more aware of the power of the “stone.” Then I quoted the mystery novelist Daphne DuBlanc, the first- person narrator, as she explains her theory of signatures:

We are constantly immersed in a network of signs and symbols whose meaning eludes us, but which, if only we could read them, would reveal every detail of our past and would even predict our future. Like anticipatory echoes, they tingle in our consciousnesses, building a crescendo until the event they herald becomes fully manifest.

The events of the novel accumulate such details as DuBlanc literally gathers them together in a drawer—a doll’s head, cigarette ends, a swatch of cloth, a pearl button. She knows she should be able to fathom their significance but is frustrated by her inability. But, when the mysteries are illuminated, she finally understands the connections: “It all made perfect sense.”

In that earlier review I also used the term “Chinese box of mysteries” about the characters and events, one inside the other and part of a larger whole. Such interwoven complexities are one of the satisfactions of a compelling mystery. It’s much more than a whodunit if what was done is itself a tantalizing unknown. The people of the story are assembled in a decaying Italian villa with the rooms and corridors lit only by candles and filled with shadows, hidden passageways, and strange noises. But is the sense of threat real or just DuBlanc’s drug-induced disoriented imagination? Is she an unreliable narrator? Can she or the characters that surround her be trusted?

The vast and primitive landscape that envelopes the villa is even more ominous. That’s where the stone of the title comes in. In the opening pages as DuBlanc enters the arid hill landscape of Tuscia in the back of a Packard, she encounters deep ravines gashing the terrain “like unhealed fissures from which rose twisted masses of gray stone”: “Only a great turbulence from deep within the earth could have gouged our such chasms which appeared before us with hardly any warning as we rolled along.”

Such surprising threats of stone resonate throughout the novel. Behind the villa through a locked gate stands the Sacred Wood, a long-abandoned collection of Renaissance statues depicting mythic scenes and events. They may have been the creations of a famous but unidentified artist. They could be a treasure, but they are overrun by growths of thick vegetation. A team of workmen is engaged with cutting away the tangle and revealing the long-hidden figures.

The first one DuBlanc encounters depicts two combating giants crudely carved in a twenty-foot boulder, the torn-apart victim screaming in horror and pain, the conqueror gnashing his teeth in fury: “Placed so close to the entrance, this hideous sight seemed to serve as an introduction to what was to come. … It was meant to shock and warn visitors to the park, perhaps even, I thought, to terrorize them.” A bit later she adds, “The resulting vision will make you mad. It will cause an inner division that will make you feel as though you have been ripped apart.”

This cutting away mirrors the processes that consume DuBlanc as she struggles to penetrate the tangle of real or seeming unknowns about the people she lives with, about the villa, and about the statue garden itself. What and who is authentic and what does it all mean? How do the mythic subjects carved into the stone connect with the ominous people and events that envelop DuBlanc?

Gornick concludes her introduction with this admission: “I still read to feel the power of Life with a capital L. I still see the protagonist in thrall to forces beyond his or her control.” The struggle with such forces is what makes DuBlanc such a gripping character.