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Under the Volcano

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Until now, Robert Harris used a simple, effective method for turning out thrillers: blend the larger-than-life events of World War II; add a dollop of fictional twist; serve with precise, economical storytelling.

Now he's abandoned a few of those trusty ingredients, substituting engineering, plumbing and the writings of Roman scholar Pliny the Elder as the foundation for his narrative. Powered by the rumblings of the soon-to-implode Mount Vesuvius, Harris' new novel, Pompeii (Random House), offers a delightful ride through the Roman Empire as disaster looms.

The book chronicles four days in August of 79 A.D. -- the two leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius, the day of catastrophe and one day beyond that. A young aqueduct engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, takes center stage. Attilius has been enlisted as the aquarius, or chief engineer, of the Aqua Augusta, a 60-mile aqueduct feeding fresh water to 250,000 people across nine towns along the Bay of Naples.

Attilius is a stoic man who thrives on work. He quietly mourns his wife, who died while unsuccessfully trying to give birth. Attilius comes from a family of aqueduct engineers; the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, Exomnius, led to his promotion as overseer of the Aqua Augusta. When springs begin failing up and down the Augusta, Attilius arrives in Misenum searching for clues. He must find a way to repair the aqueduct before the reservoir, Piscina Mirabilis, runs dry.

The story begins with a corrupt, nouveau riche tycoon, Ampliatus, feeding his slave to carnivorous eels -- a theatrical, cruel act of retribution for the slave's assumed role in fouling his master's pond and killing prized fish. Instead, as Attilius soon realizes, the problem isn't the negligence of a slave, it's the town's failing water system. Thus Attilius, and Pompeii, kick into gear.

Despite the reams of Roman ruminations filling bookstores and libraries, Harris manages to inform and educate without hobbling his tale. The set pieces are delicious: sun-drenched resorts filled with self-absorbed snobs, predilections for hair removal and unusual delicacies (sows' udders, anyone?), even the use of urine as the laundry detergent of the time.

The politics are Louisiana corrupt. Everyone, it seems, is on the take. Salve lucrum ("Hail profit") is Pompeii's version of "greed is good." Ampliatus and Attilius offer the worst and best of their society, while Pliny the Elder brings relentless curiosity and a fading generation's perspective. In twilight, Pliny remains obsessed with discovering, and describing, all manner of natural and scientific phenomena.

He would be pleased, then, with Pompeii. Above all, the aqueduct and Vesuvius command the reader's fascination in Harris's novel. Bit by bit, Harris clues the reader in: aqueducts dropped the width of a finger every hundred yards -- "any more and the flow would rupture the walls; any less and the water would lie stagnant." Vesuvius, when it erupted, delivered a destructive capacity 100,000 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Attilius wins Pliny's backing for an expedition to Pompeii, the first town on the Augusta's main line. He suspects the aqueduct's failure is linked to a problem along a 5-mile span near Vesuvius. First, though, he must win the assistance of Ampliatus for men and supplies -- and then he must find a solution to a problem that is insoluble. The conclusion is inevitable, and yet the journey of Attilius proves no less compelling.

As Attilius and his band of reluctant repairmen search for answers, Ampliatus and the town fathers continue making trouble. They squabble, they bribe, they plot to eliminate the all-too-honest aquarius now among them. Ampliatus has begun construction on a luxurious bathhouse in Pompeii and, it soon becomes clear, had been bribing the former aquarius for free water service.

Throughout these plot lines, Harris manages the tricky terrain of dispensing cultural and historical perspective without intruding on the story. With Pliny, a scholar and writer, Harris can provide an authentic Roman view of science without lapsing into anachronism. The details ring true. There are enough tunics and togas and dung-filled streets to set the long-ago scene, as well as timeless, irresistible elements of treachery and disloyalty. A sense of doom pervades the repair expedition that Attilius leads. The men are spooked by superstition. They see ghosts, imagine curses and wonder at the prophesies of seers able to see everything, save volcanic ash.

Even Attilius, the aquarius who has devoted his life to science and work, finds himself grappling with foreboding, illogical thoughts. As the disastrous clues stack up -- the intermittent earth tremors in the days before the eruption offer the most obvious example -- it is too late to stave off the inevitable.

If Harris loses his footing in Pompeii, it is when he attempts to link the randomness of natural disaster with the perilous, lackadaisical attitude of a self-satisfied empire. Such missteps, though, are few. Through Attilius and Pliny, two dutiful but imperfect men, the explosive conclusion of Pompeii retains its fire.

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