The Benedictine abbey at Montecassino, Italy, established in the 6th Century C.E., has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the centuries. The current structure was rededicated by the pope in 1964 after it was leveled by Allied bombing in 1944 and rebuilt from original plans.
The abbey and its environs are the setting for Derek B. Miller’s novel “The Curse of Pedro Houdini.” The protagonist, a 14-year-old orphan, is rescued from a gang of assailants by an enigmatic figure calling himself “Pietro Houdini.”
Houdini dubs his young charge “assistant to the master of art restoration and conservation.” Houdini explains that the Nazis plan to loot the abbey of its priceless collection of art and cultural artifacts, and he intends to preserve three of the paintings. He also has plans that he chooses not to reveal until the time is right.
The story unfolds as Allied forces fight their way from the south on their way to Rome. The abbey sits atop a 1700-foot mountain, a location essential for both the Allies and the Nazis to control. As Houdini works to conceal the few pieces of art he will be able to smuggle to relative safety, other characters from the abbey and its surrounding areas are introduced. Each person has their own secret, secrets that are revealed at unexpected moments in the narrative.
The artwork finds its way to Naples, and security, through a combination of ingenuity, treachery, and violence. An epilog describes their final resting place and brings closure to several aspects of the story.
Miller’s novel is historical fiction; historical because the wartime events and some of the characters are well documented in historical sources, and fiction because the protagonist, Houdini, and many of the other characters are made from whole cloth. Each of the major players are well developed and integral to the advancement of the narrative.
“The Curse of Pietro Houdini” is a novel that will entrance not only the lover of historical fiction, but also those who enjoy an engrossing, well-written tale.