The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller

The battle of Montecassino is the backdrop for this tale of art theft, wartime violence and human connections, even of kindness and justice. A true page-turner for lovers of historical fiction spiced with details of art, architecture and culture.

The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller
Avid Reader Press
Hardcover | $28.99
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Stories about WWII are nearly always good and sometimes they are great. This is one of the great ones. Set in Italy near the end of the war, the allies are nearing their defeat of the Germans occupying that country. A young man, Massimo, whose parents have been killed by the bombing of Rome is rescued from the streets and welcomed into the schemes of an enigmatic figure, Pietro Houdini, a man whose past, purpose and real identity remain a mystery throughout most of the book. He treats Massimo as a son, however, and cares for him while acting as an art conservator in the monastery at Montecassino, which will become the site of fierce fighting and destruction.


As their relationship matures, Pietro will talk non-stop about art, politics, love, war and religion. Massimo absorbs as much as he can and becomes a palimpsest upon which the older man writes a fate. Confused at first, the young boy begins to learn about life and death, about love and hate, about self-preservation and selflessness as the chaos explodes around him. Eventually they must flee the monastery before an allied bombing campaign and an assault to capture the mountaintop refuge takes place and endangers their lives. Massimo will become his own person and complete the strange task Pietro has set for him.


Filled with architectural and artistic detail and garnished with historical and philosophical notions culled from the classics and Renaissance thinking, this rich tale sails through violence and cruelty to emerge in redemption and a kind of justice the protagonist cannot anticipate at the beginning. It is a compelling story and it is written with craftsmanlike skill which will certainly keep the reader’s interest and the pages turning. Among the WWII books of recent publication it ranks highly.