In late 2011 a cryptic invitation leads a crime novelist to Venice’s Island of the Dead. Once there he is captivated by his host’s tale, which spans the centuries – but seemingly begins and ends in the dark days of the 1930s . . .
In 1936, a similarly cryptic invitation brings Grail historian Otto Rahn to an apartment in Berlin. Waiting for him inside is Hitler’s right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler, and Rahn’s life is turned upside down. For Himmler wants Rahn to locate Les Serpent Rouge, a notorious book of black magic written by Pope Honorius in the 14th century.
Following a trail from Paris down to Carcassone in the South of France, Rahn discovers a web of deceit and murder. Clearly Himmler is not the only powerful figure in search of the grimoire. A shadowy circle of men are watching Rahn’s every move, and they will stop at nothing to possess both the book and the legendary Sixth Key that will unlock its terrifying power . . .
‘What then shall I ask?’
‘You must begin at the beginning.’
‘The beginning! But where is the beginning?’
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Mesmeric Revelation’
Venice, November 2012
I had fallen asleep on the bench waiting for the vaporetto and woke with a dry mouth and a crick in the neck as the boat pulled up at the Fondamente Nuove. Once we were chugging lazily over the dusk-coloured lagoon, I dared to ask the boatman where he was taking me. Luckily he spoke some English and pointed to an island in the distance, saying, ‘San Michele. The Island of the Dead . . . the cemetery of Venice.’
Well, I thought to myself. Why not a cemetery in the middle of a lagoon? It all made a crazy sort of sense – it was something the Writer of Letters, as I liked to call him, would do. It was in character. My publisher had forwarded his last letter, as always, typed on the same watermarked paper as the others. It contained these words: Perhaps it is time we meet? Together, I am certain that we can find the solution to the riddle that is perplexing you:
HOC EST SEPULCHRUM
INTUS CADAVER NON HABENS
HOC EST CADAVER SEPULCHRUM
EXTRA NON HABENS
SED CADAVER IDEM EST
ET SEPULCHRUM SIBI
This time, along with the letter there was also an air ticket to Venice and instructions on what to do when I arrived. Counting this one, I had received six letters in all. At first I had thought them mildly amusing; after all, what author of mysteries doesn’t receive letters from shopkeepers, housewives, or even convicted criminals, offering interesting information? But I only realised how different these letters were when the fourth arrived. That’s when I began to wonder who this person was. At the time I had just finished a novel and my editor discovered that a Latin word, a word integral to the plot, was grammatically incorrect. This unfortunate realisation occurred just as the book was headed for the printing press and I quickly got on the phone to several Latin professors. I needed a Latin word composed of seven letters – no more and no less – that meant ‘becoming’. I was on the phone to the printers trying to delay them when the fourth letter arrived. A coincidence, you might ask? No, I’ve come to know there are no coincidences. Inside the letter I found the Latin word I had been looking for – Fiesque. Similarly, the fifth letter arrived when I was unable to source important details about an underground passage in an obscure castle on the border of Austria and Hungary. Once again, in that fifth letter I found a miracle – an essay written in the early nineteenth century by a Knight of Malta, containing the very information I needed. This was a mystery that could well have been written by Edgar Allan Poe!
So, you see, I wasn’t surprised when I received the sixth letter containing a Latin riddle that had been confounding me for months. The riddle was found on a sixteenth-century tombstone in Bologna. It was entitled ‘To the Gods of the Dead’ and translated it read:
This is a tomb that has no body in it.
This is a body that has no tomb round it.
But body and tomb are the same.
I had long been certain that it held the solution to one of the most important mysteries of our time – the mystery of life and death – and I had resolved to make the solution to this riddle the pivotal theme of my next novel. When it proved more than difficult to solve, I took comfort in knowing that it had obsessed and exercised the wits of better minds than mine: men like Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Jung and the French writer Gerard Nerval had also wrestled with it. But as time dragged on, and the deadline for delivery of the manuscript loomed, I began to wonder what had made me imagine myself capable of solving it.
The timely arrival of that sixth letter was compelling evidence that its writer was either intuiting my thoughts, or indeed, perhaps even inspiring them. Of course I had to accept his invitation. How could I refuse? By coming to Venice I would be solving two mysteries – the identity of the Writer of Letters and the solution to the inscription.
Now, as I looked out from the vaporetto towards that cold island overhung with Cyprus spears, I marvelled at the ingenuity of the creator of those letters. He had orchestrated a scene straight out of the Egyptian Book of the Dead: I was travelling on the boat of Isis, sailing over the river of souls to the Underworld. It was brilliant!
When the boat came to the landing stage on the northwest corner of the island I climbed out, paid the man what I owed him and watched him pull his vessel away into the foggy evening. Above on the upper landing I saw a light moving in the darkness – it was a monk carrying a lamp. The monk turned out to be a rather pleasant Irishman. He made animated conversation as he led me through dark arches and cloisters, beyond which lay a world suspended in a mercurial solution of fog and Carrara marble.
‘Will you be staying the night?’ he asked.
‘Actually, I’m not certain,’ I said, feeling ridiculous.
‘Well, it’s good you’ve come before the Day of the Dead.’
‘That’s in three days’ time?’ I hadn’t thought about the Day of the Dead, an important holiday for Venetians, and so appropriate – I couldn’t help but smile.
‘Yes, the vaporetto is free all day for those who want to visit the graves of their relatives. The cemetery ends up full of flowers and aswarm with people.’ He leant in. ‘The definition of bedlam if you ask me! For now, it’s serene, thank God!’ I looked around, taking in the size of the island. ‘The cemetery doesn’t seem big enough to service all of Venice.’ ‘You’re right: the buried only stay here twelve years. After that, the bones are exhumed and the remains are moved to the Island of Bones, Sant’ Ariano. Venice is built on water, you see, and there can be no catacombs, so, over the centuries a lot of thought has gone into what to do with the dead. One could even say that Venetians are obsessed with death. Did you know they once used the bones of the dead to refine their sugar! I won’t be getting diabetes living here, that’s for certain.’ He gave an easy laugh. It sounded strange, given the present setting.
Beyond the monastery’s cloister now, we entered a dark, labyrinthine corridor that led to what looked like a library. I followed the monk over oriental rugs to two winged chairs set by a great fire and here my breathing paused. After six years the moment had come, and I could hardly believe it. I had tried many times to imagine the Writer of Letters. Sometimes I conjured an image of a middle-aged hermit with a crooked back, a hooked nose and a lined face. At other times he was the handsome head librarian of some illustrious library, a man of letters who liked to read mystery novels on the sly. I even imagined a beautiful, erudite woman – a modern version of that Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia. Now, when the man stood and offered his hand, I couldn’t have been more surprised.
Adriana Koulias was born in 1960 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the age of nine her family migrated to Australia, she travelled extensively throughout her youth and was fifteen before finally settling down in a small country town outside Coffs Harbour. In 1980 she began nursing studies and became a registered nurse three years later. At this time she formed a band that toured New South Wales for two years wherein she met her husband James. In 1984 she and James moved to Sydney and she began eight years of study with Janice Light, formerly of the Australian Opera Company on voice. In 1989 Adriana began a study of Anthroposophy, Philiosophy and History and also embarked on a career as an artist, selling work to various art galleries and participating in several mixed exhibitions. Adriana now lectures regularly on History, Philosophy and Esoteric Science. She has two children and lives in Sydney.