Those who follow J.R. Rogers’ novels recognize his signature: little-known settings in far-flung cities that he seems somehow to know intimately, and an intriguing what-could-go-wrong plot of espionage populated with a mix of sophisticated and common characters with varying skills and expertise in advancing the story. While compelled by the intrigue of a fast-moving and unexpected story, the reader always learns new lessons in geography, history, and social interactions typical within a surprising off-the-path setting.
In The Italian Couple, one quickly recognizes Rogers’ signature and eagerly settles into the opening story of a thrilling motor race through the streets of Asmara, Mussolini’s “La Piccola Roma,” (Little Rome) in the Italian colony of Eritrea. Here we meet our first character, Mario Caparrotti, as he skillfully navigates, shifts through the gears, and speeds through familiar streets and corners of Asmara in his red 1934 Fiat 508 Sport Spider. From there we are off as a complex panoply of characters and twisting plot unfold and race toward an unexpected denouement.
Although one always settles in eagerly to Rogers’ signature in the first paragraphs for a good read, it would be a mistake to anticipate formulaic personalities and twists of plot. Rogers does not recycle his novels! Rather, it is a new place, a new slice of history, and a unique set of characters and plot that one races through his pages to discover.
If the past is a foreign country, then the past in a foreign country is even more difficult to fathom. It is author John R. Rogers’s genius to set political thrillers in obscure corners of the world in a bygone era and to make that world come alive.
In The Italian Couple we are transported to Asmara, the capital of Italian Eritrea, in the late 1930s. Rogers brings us into the setting with descriptions such as this: “Men holding sticks, their heads wrapped and wearing white ankle-length garments leading a long line of camels. They were pack animals the color of worn cashmere loaded with firewood and large earthenware jugs of drinking water.”
He conjures up the bygone life of expat Europeans with tableaux so vivid you can not only see them but feel the tropical heat: “…the governor and his family and staff seated in chairs under tall umbrellas on the sprawling lawn bordered by lush vegetation and high iron gates.”
The author populates his setting with seemingly ordinary characters, among others, Mario, the racecar driver, Emilia, the English-born wife of an Italian army officer, and Gyles, the British freelance foreign correspondent. Of course, each of them carries a secret that propels the plot in unexpected directions.
Rogers creates suspense slowly, subtly, as he pulls us into the story. Before we know it, we are on the edge of our seats, almost afraid to read on but unable to stop as the story builds (and twists and turns) on its way to a gut-wrenching finale.