Wait long enough, and the right one will come along: That’s the philosophy of Yukiko, the husband-seeking sibling in that great Japanese novel (and perennial summer reading treat) “The Makioka Sisters.” And for once, at least, the advice has worked for lovers of suspense novels rooted in historical mysteries, too. Two years ago, we got the phenomenally successful but historically bogus and literarily negligible “The Da Vinci Code.” Last year, it was the callow, garbled “The Rule of Four.” This year, the publishing business finally delivers on its promises: Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian” is a hypnotic yarn, saturated in authentic history and eerie intrigue.
Granted, this is a vampire story, of which there are surely already too many, but “The Historian” eschews the extravagant gore and even more extravagant pose-striking of the modern vampire novel. It’s a multigenerational mystery about the search for the tomb of the medieval Wallachian (not Transylvanian!) tyrant Vlad Tepes (the real-life Dracula), conducted by a handful of historians who become convinced he is still alive — or, rather, undead. The main narrator is an unnamed 16-year-old girl, whose father initiates her into the cause when she discovers a mysterious book — blank save for a woodcut of a rampant dragon, hidden in their library.
“The Historian” isn’t especially scary (though Kostova can work up a respectable miasma of dread when needed), and it lacks the inane but breathless chase scenes of “The Da Vinci Code,” but for the sophisticated reader it’s a fine Bordeaux to Dan Brown’s overcaffeinated Diet Coke. Essentially a languorous gothic travelogue, the novel whisks its readers to a series of off-the-package-tour European locales (Ljubljana, anyone?) during the 1930s, ’50s and ’70s, when the Carpathian Mountains — Dracula’s home turf — seemed as wild and remote as the Andes.
Kostova has a genius for evoking places without making you wade through paragraphs of description. The “fluttering hush” of the Carpathian forests, the chaotic streets of Istanbul, a cryptic ritual dance in a Bulgarian village unchanged in hundreds of years — all impress themselves on the reader almost as vividly as actual memories. Perhaps the most uncanny sensation the book gave me came when I looked up pictures of Poenari, the ruins of Dracula’s mountaintop fortress, where one character spends a very unsettled night, and realized it seemed as familiar as a place I’d visited myself, due to the power of Kostova’s evocation.
“The Historian” also imparts a sense of how real historians work (sifting through archives of ancient ledgers to find that crucial and revealing letter, etc.) and of a sizable chunk of Central Europe’s ravaged past as a borderland between Christendom and the encroaching Ottoman Empire. (Dracula was a famous Turk-killer, as well as the slaughterer, through various ghastly, sadistic means, of some 20,000 of his own people.) Kostova even adds a few nice little multicultural addenda to vampire lore, like reporting that Muslim prayer beads work as effectively as a crucifix in fending off the fiends.
The creepiest secret unearthed by the girl narrator of “The Historian” does bear a certain resemblance to the shocking revelation in “The Da Vinci Code.” The big difference is that, unlike Brown’s nattering cardboard people, by the end of Kostova’s novel, the girl and the mother she lost as an infant have also become people worth caring about, tragic figures enmeshed with a treacherous past. That makes “The Historian” a thriller in more ways than one.
Read more of our reviews of summer books