"The Medusa Amulet"
By Robert Masello
Bantam, $26.00, 464 pages
A mirror that makes those who gaze into it immortal. A garland that makes the wearer invisible. A long-lost manuscript. A mortally ill sister. The Newberry Library. The Castel St. Angelo. Cellini. Nazis.
Robert Masello tosses so many ingredients into his lively new thriller - giving the pot a big stir as he mixes them up in Chicago, Florence, Paris and an isolated French chateau - that you might expect the result to be an indigestible mess. On the contrary, this veteran journalist, television writer and multi-genre book author offers a savory stew whose more outre flavors are balanced by the familiar tastes of family and home. It's a wonderful treat, and you'll only be embarrassed about enjoying it so much when you're trying to explain the plot to an incredulous friend.
Actually, Masello does an excellent job of grounding the story's supernatural elements in historical fact about the life and work of Benvenuto Cellini, the famed 16th-century Florentine goldsmith and sculptor who also wrote one of the world's great autobiographies. Picking up on the autobiography's fascination with the occult, Masello invents an unknown work, "The Key to Eternal Life," in which Cellini detailed his creation of La Medusa, a mirror containing drops of the water of immortality. He collected the water during a visit to the underworld - oh, and while he was there, he killed Medusa, picked up some bulrushes, twined them together and dipped them in silver to create the garland of invisibility.
David Franco, a rising scholarly star at the Newberry Library, is handed the manuscript of The Key to Eternal Life by the mysterious, fabulously wealthy Kathryn Van Owen. La Medusa is real, she assures him, and she wants David to find it for her. Not only will she pay him one million dollars, but this magical mirror can save the life of his sister Sarah, who is dying of cancer. David's profound love for Sarah, tenderly and believably depicted in several affecting scenes at her home in the Chicago suburbs and at Evanston Hospital, gives the novel its emotional center. It makes plausible his willingness to consider the possibility that Mrs. Van Owen isn't crazy and to head for the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence to examine other Cellini documents that may help him locate La Medusa.
Setting up this strong motivation for his likable protagonist, Masello also encourages readers to suspend disbelief as he reveals that Kathryn Van Owen is Caterina, Cellini's mistress and muse, who gained eternal life by looking into her lover's mirror. After Cellini was hauled off to Rome and tossed in the Castel St. Angelo dungeons for creating this "unholy object," she wandered the world, marrying and acquiring riches, then moving on when the passing of years threatened to expose her secret. Weary of it all, she hopes that smashing La Medusa will end her unwanted immortality.
Caterina doesn't know that Cellini too gazed in the mirror. Chapters about the sculptor's adventures after he faked his death eventually explain what happened to La Medusa, while in the present day David is menaced by a variety of unsavory folks intent on making sure he doesn't live to find the mirror. They work for the exceedingly sinister Monsieur Linz, whom we first meet as he dumps a hapless victim into a shaft leading to a watery grave below the Chateau Perdu, his lair south of Paris.
Hints about what Monsieur Linz is up to come from Olivia, the feisty tour guide and freelance intellectual David bumps into in Florence. She's been barred from the Biblioteca Laurenziana for claiming that during World War II its staff collaborated with the Nazis - who were, she informs David, obsessed with the occult and pillaged Florence's libraries "searching for secrets that would add to their power."
Seasoned thriller readers will no doubt see where all this is heading. But Masello's skillful plotting integrates the bizarre twists and turns into a solid narrative structure that leaves no annoying loose ends to insult our intelligence. Even if he does sometimes strain our credulity, we stick with his fabulous tale because he takes care to craft well-rounded characters; even subsidiary figures have interesting backgrounds and believable motivations. Cranky, whip-smart Olivia is a particular pleasure in the usually thankless role of the hero's comely assistant/love interest.
Granted, the lurid denouement at the Chateau Perdu is over the top, but it's an awful lot of fun. And La Medusa makes her final appearance to facilitate moving reunions for four people who have thoroughly earned their happy endings. One last bravura flourish, opening a box containing one more secret treasure of Cellini's, proclaims Masello a master entertainer unafraid to pull out all the stops, as gifted in his own way as the Florentine artist whose biography is so beguilingly embellished in "The Medusa Amulet."
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and writes book reviews frequently for the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.Copyright © 2015, CT Now