It is a mistake to try to read Ackroyd’s fiction too literally but in the end he smothers this slight novel’s narrative gaps in extravagant fantasy. Mr Cadmus returns to Italy in search of the lethal trove of precious stones that, implausibly, links all the earlier deaths, before his native island is ultimately devastated by an earthquake and eruption that encases its victims, Pompeii-like, in pumice, ash and molten amethyst. “You can hardly call this natural,” says Mr Cadmus mildly over tea in Devon, inadvertently summing up the book’s fatal flaw.
Their prehistories are recounted matter-of-factly, with little introspection; the women are companionable, but inscrutable. The novel takes an outlandish turn in its denouement, which involves a bizarre treasure hunt for rare amethysts on Caldera. The jewels, said to be cursed, are “protected” by mythical purple seagulls. Ackroyd has form with this kind of thing: the occult has been an occasional theme in his literary output over the years, most notably in his 1985 novel, Hawksmoor. The somewhat abrupt key change — from comic noir to gaudy mysticism — detracts from an otherwise well-crafted tale.