The Curse of Pietro Houdini: A Novel (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

"This is so much more than another WWII tale of survival, or story of a thrilling art heist.  This book, loosely based on actual events, is a sweeping saga filled with the most endearing characters and written so well that I was enthralled from the very first page.  Massimo, orphaned at 14 by the Allied shelling of the abbey at Monte Cassino, narrates a tale that spans 40 years.  With his introduction of each new character I became more and more engrossed in his world; a world of Nazis and art thieves, cruelty and kindness, and great humor in equal measures.   Truly a wonderful and worthwhile read!"

— From Karen's Staff Picks

February 2024 Indie Next List

“This is a sweeping story of Italy during WWII, told by a fourteen-year-old orphaned by the allied bombing of Rome. The brutality of war can tear any family apart.”
— Karen Bradley, McLean & Eakin Booksellers, Petoskey, MI


From the Dagger Award–winning author of Norwegian by Night comes a vivid, thrilling, and moving World War II art-heist-adventure tale where enemies become heroes, allies become villains, and a child learns what it means to become an adult—for fans of All the Light We Cannot See.

August, 1943. Fourteen-year-old Massimo is all alone. Newly orphaned and fleeing from Rome after surviving the American bombing raid that killed his parents, Massimo is attacked by thugs and finds himself bloodied at the base of the Montecassino. It is there in the Benedictine abbey’s shadow that a charismatic and cryptic man calling himself Pietro Houdini, the self-proclaimed “Master Artist and confidante of the Vatican,” rescues Massimo and brings him up the mountain to serve as his assistant in preserving the treasures that lay within the monastery walls.

But can Massimo believe what Pietro is saying, particularly when Massimo has secrets too? Who is this extraordinary man? When it becomes evident that Montecassino will soon become the front line in the war, Pietro Houdini and Massimo execute a plan to smuggle three priceless Titian paintings to safety down the mountain. They are joined by a nurse concealing a nefarious past, a café owner turned murderer, a wounded but chipper German soldier, and a pair of lovers along with their injured mule, Ferrari. Together they will lie, cheat, steal, fight, kill, and sin their way through battlefields to survive, all while smuggling the Renaissance masterpieces and the bag full of ancient Greek gold they have rescued from the “safe keeping” of the Germans.

Heartfelt, powerfully engaging, and in the tradition of City of Thieves by David Benioff, The Curse of Pietro Houdini is a work of storytelling bravado: a thrilling action-packed adventure heist, an imaginative chronicle of forgotten history, and a philosophical coming-of-age epic where a child navigates one of the most enigmatic and morally complex fronts of World War II and lives to tell the tale.

About the Author

Derek B. Miller is the author of six previous novels: Norwegian by NightThe Girl in GreenAmerican by DayRadio Life, Quiet Time (an Audible Original novel), and How to Find Your Way in the Dark. His work has been shortlisted for many awards, with Norwegian by Night winning the CWA John Creasey Dagger Award for best first crime novel, among others. How to Find Your Way in the Dark was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and a New York Times best mystery of 2021. A Boston native, Miller lives in Spain with his family.

Praise For…

“[An] urgent work that slyly honors authors both ancient and modern. . . Mr. Miller’s book has the ring of truth and the echo of myth, and it deserves all the lucky readers who discover it.” —Tom Nolon, The Wall Street Journal

The Curse of Pietro Houdini boasts a little bit of everything—a truly fascinating setting; rich, quirky characters; tragedy, suspense, warmth and humor. Derek B. Miller has shown the range of his talents in six previous novels, but this may be his masterpiece. . . An epic novel that manages to convey an extraordinary yet realistic story encapsulating the horrors of war. . . Many readers, in fact, may be reminded of Anthony Doerr’s beloved World War II novel, All the Light We Cannot See.” —BookPage *starred review*

"Miller. . . is a splendid storyteller. . . the novel works equally well as wartime tale, heist thriller, coming-of-age story, and sweeping history and art lesson. . . A brilliantly imagined World War II saga." Kirkus *starred review* 

“A wonderful novel, full of heart and humor and stunning characters. Derek B. Miller’s prose is deeply compelling, and he layers in quite a bit of detail to make it all the more realistic. For fans of historical fiction, this is a great read. It’s exciting, but never strays too far away from a historical character drama, and is a unique perspective on the back half of World War II. . . Certainly one of my top reads from this year. Those who pick it up will have a great time with it.” —The Colorado Sun

"Unflinchingly illuminates the traumas that World War II inflicted on civilians in Italy and presents the durability of love and the costs of war. . . Miller's straightforward and incisive writing and compelling, complex characters make the book worthwhile. Devastatingly sharp descriptions of the landscape augment the narrative. Ideal for historical-fiction fans who want insight on Italian civilians surviving World War II." Library Journal

“[A] brilliantly imagined work of fiction. . . Entertaining and compelling, this extremely well-written and fast-paced novel uses many factual events as a background. Readers will enjoy the book’s history and drama, as well as Miller’s captivating cast of characters.” —

“Sometimes you read a book so astonishingly good you can’t stop thinking about it. . . The Curse of Pietro Houdini is one of those rare books. War, art, violence, beauty, survival and a heroic mule, this story is so good.” —The Southern Bookseller Review

“Cinematic. . . The cast of characters resembles a modern version of Chaucer’s band of pilgrims—the boy, the art restorer who saves him, a nun, a cafe owner and murderer, a wounded German soldier and an injured mule named Ferrari.” Hadassah Magazine

"Epic." The Washington Post

"Derek B. Miller delivers an irresistible story of defiance." —The Christian Science Monitor

“Top-notch historical fiction. . . Part buddy adventure, part coming-of-age story, part action-adventure tale . . . it's at times laugh-out-loud funny and at others heartbreakingly tragic (and occasionally it's both at the same time—a neat trick for any author to pull off). . . Miller's writing, too, is gorgeous, vividly describing moments of beauty amid the horror. . . In short, The Curse of Pietro Houdini checks all the boxes for truly great historical fiction: authentic, likable characters, exquisite writing, engrossing plot, and absorbing historical detail. . . This is a must-read for fans of World War II fiction, particularly those who've enjoyed novels like All the Light We Cannot See and City of Thieves. Highly recommended.” —BookBrowse

“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.” —Reading the West

“Full of wit and wisdom. . . The underlying subtle wit to Miller’s writing always leaves me with an inner smile for reasons I can’t quite explain, but it probably has to do with his indelible characters and how they manage to eke out the light in the dark times they wrestle with. I’ll follow that story into any genre.” —Audible

“A man bent on saving art from Nazi pillagers changes the life of an orphaned Italian teen in the appealing latest from Miller. . . [The] historical adventure is worth the price of admission.” —Publishers Weekly
Product Details
ISBN: 9781668020883
ISBN-10: 1668020882
Publisher: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: January 16th, 2024
Pages: 384
Language: English