Blast from the Past

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The last days of Pompeii has been the title of, among other things, a historical romance by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a mini-series featuring Lesley-Anne Down and a porn flick starring one Candy Samples. It's hard to beat the location: the playground of the Roman aristocracy, a town swollen and oozing with corruption and decadence, conveniently located near a large, picturesque source of divine retribution. First sex, then violence — what's not to like?

In Pompeii (Random House; 278 pages), Robert Harris, author of the thrillers Fatherland and Archangel, makes the most of it. He takes us into the life of the city by way of Marcus Attilius Primus, a young, pure-hearted engineer who specializes in building and maintaining aqueducts. Aqueducts were a big deal in A.D. 79, both the backbone of and a metaphor for the glory that was ancient Rome. One night Pompeii's aqueduct starts belching sulphurous fumes, then dries up altogether. Attilius sets out to find the problem.

Along the way, he becomes embroiled in an internecine squabble within the household of Ampliatus, one of Pompeii's plutocrats, which brings him into contact with Ampliatus' sexy daughter and leads him to the mystery of his predecessor's sudden disappearance. Harris has a field day with the debauched goings-on at Ampliatus'--the menu includes honeyed mice, parrot tongues, a sow's udder stuffed with kidneys (with the sow's vulva on the side) and a moray eel fattened on human flesh.

Pompeii itself is a curious dish. It's marketed as a thriller, but it contains a lot more information about Roman engineering techniques and volcanology than your average Tom Clancy, and there are moments when the story feels like just an excuse to show off another nifty piece of research. Still, if Pompeii lumbers heavily at first, it eventually picks up speed, helped along by squalls of flying lava and gusts of uncommonly sharp writing, as well as by the undeniable pathos of Harris' most successful character, the great natural philosopher Pliny, who insists on recording his observations of Vesuvius up to the moment when it sweeps away heroes and villains alike.

It's almost always a mistake to give a novel more than one epigraph. Harris gives Pompeii three, two of which draw parallels between the supremacy of ancient Rome and the current hyperpower of the U.S. Does he intend us to read the devastation of Pompeii as somehow analogous to the attacks of 9/11? A divine check on the hubris of empire? The connection feels reckless at best. Sometimes a volcano is just a volcano.