Staff Choice

Staff Choice

August 15, 2004|By Dan Fesperman

Pompeii, by Robert Harris. Random House. 304 pages. $24.95.

Robert Harris has made a specialty of ushering readers deep into worlds that they can no longer -- or never could -- visit. In Fatherland, he created a chilling vision of Nazi Germany as it might have existed in the 1960s, had Hitler's army survived the Russian Front. In Enigma, he re-created the claustrophobic pressure cooker of wartime Eng-land's Bletchley Park, where hundreds of cryptographers worked frantically to break Ger-many's military codes.

His latest thriller, Pompeii, leaps all the way back to A.D. 79, on the eve of the city's destruction by Mount Vesuvius. Our escort is Marcus Attilius Primus, an aqueduct engineer investigating a sudden drop in the water table, a break in the main supply line, and a mysterious infusion of sulphur. The writing is plain, even workmanlike at times, but Harris is utterly convincing in rendering the era's looks, sounds and smells, and he demonstrates an unerring touch for politics and social interplay, all of which are interwoven seamlessly into a well-paced plot.

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