Picks and Pans Review: Pompeii

updated 01/12/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

THRILLER

by Robert Harris

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It's August of 79—not'79—on the Bay of Naples, and Attilius, a young aqueduct manager, or aquarius, has just arrived at Misenum, where his predecessor has vanished. Worse, a water crisis has erupted. Sulphur tainting the water forces Attilius to close down the aqueduct. The problem, he deduces, originates near Mount Vesuvius. To repair it, he seeks a scouting party from the Roman admiral in command of the area, who happens to be Pliny the Elder, author of Natural History and the smartest man in the world.

Harris (Fatherland) is terrific in describing the grandeur of the aqueducts, inviting the reader inside them—Attilius is thrillingly trapped by onrushing water at one point. And the blast from Vesuvius kicks ash, as rocks and pumice rain down vividly. But posteruption heroics turn melodramatic. Attilius is in love with the daughter of a crooked tycoon in a toga who calls to mind any number of modern plutocrats—and cliches. That brainiac Pliny, however, enlivens every scene he's in, though even he hasn't a clue to the disaster that's coming.

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