by Robert Harris
While not necessarily great literature, Pompeii is a gripping historical thriller and disaster story, well-researched and beautifully told. Marcus Attilius Primus is a Roman water engineer sent to fix the failing aquaducts in the Campania region of southern Italy. The reader is told at the start that Vesuvius will erupt in two days. This puts quite a layer of urgency underneath Attilius's struggle to put the clues together. As resourceful as Attilius is, and even with the help of the great philosopher-scientist Pliny, it becomes apparent that no one at the time even realizes that Vesuvius is a volcano. Attilius's investigations lead him to Pompeii, which, unlike all the surrounding towns, has more than its share of water. A sleazy, power-hungry ex-slave named Ampliatus seems unusually interested in Attilius's work, and helps fund an expedition up the slope of Vesuvius to find the blockage in the underground aquaduct. Time ticks away, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Attilius will even survive until the time of the blast. At one point, the intrepid aquarius is actually up ON the steaming black summit of the mountain. When the eruption starts, we see it from all angles: from the panicking streets of Pompeii, from Pliny's fascinated perch in Misenum, from military ships in the harbor, and from WAY TOO CLOSE, which is always where Attilius seems to be. The book can easily be read in real-time, but you'll probably want to read much faster.