In the picturesque Tuscan hill town of Scandicci, the body of a girl is discovered. Scantily dressed, with no purse or other possessions, she is lying by the edge of the woods. The local police investigate the case - but after a week they still haven't even identified her, let alone got to the bottom of how she died.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY is the second book from former Florence police chief Michele Guittari, billed as a bestseller in Italy and translated into nine languages. I was particularly interested to read this as the first book A FLORENTINE DEATH had a number of elements which didn't work at all for me, and I wanted to see if this was first book syndrome or more to do with this particular author's style of storytelling.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY starts out with the discovery of the body of a girl near a small Tuscan hill town. Scantily dressed, no identification, the problem for police is discovering who she is - let alone who killed her. Stepping into lead the investigation is Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, head of Florence's elite Squadra Mobile, although he is soon distracted by conspiracies to the left and right of him.
Part of my problems with the first book was the overt self-aggrandisement of the central character - I don't think it was too much of a stretch to imagine that it's very much autobiographical, and frankly, the self-reverential tone got really tiresome, really quickly. The second book is only marginally better in this respect, as once again Ferrara seems to be the only person in the entire cast that knows anything, can see anything, understands the clues. Combine that with a plot that just simply did not work, and this book was very disappointing. At the centre of the story is the discovery of this young girl, who quickly becomes the catalyst for a crusade and much righteous (and reasonable) indignation at her fate. That is until Ferrara's best friend goes missing and he heads off in that direction. Which leaves the reader with absolutely no doubt whatsoever that somehow these two seemingly unconnected events will eventually be connected. Which was disappointingly drawn out and overly convoluted to the point where the whole plot became almost laughably contrived. Add to that the requisite shadowy influence of a secret society (in this case the Freemasons as well as the Mafia), political corruption, international drug running and a greatly put upon and misunderstood Ferrara and the whole thing not only lacked credibility, it got dangerously close to silly at points.
The action either lurched forward in chunks of Ferrara's personal brilliance, or bogged down in endless drives, bizarre chats, and detailed descriptions of procedural elements that frankly got so boring it was a real struggle to stay with the book. Which is a pity. Because the death of young people at the hands of sick adults in powerful positions should be a storyline that makes the reader stop and think about what's going on in the world.
THE WHISPERER - Donato Carrisi
Six buried arms. Six missing girls. A team led by Captain Roche and internationally renowned criminologist Goran Gavila are on the trail of a serial killer whose ferocity seems to have no limits. And he seems to be taunting them, leading them to discover each small corpse in turn; but the clues on the bodies point to several different killers.
You sometimes just have to wonder about the bravery of the people who select the blurbs for the front of books. THE WHISPERER, debut book by Italian author Donato Carrisi, comes with the attribution "The most eagerly awaited thriller in the world? It is written by an unknown Italian' Il Giornale". Now I'll be honest, this blurb really threw me, it seems to set high expectations, particularly for a debut novel.
The central thread of the book is the story of the discovery of six severed arms in a forest clearing without bodies, but identified by forensics as belonging to girls aged between eight and thirteen. There are five girls in that age group reported missing, but with no bodies identifying the victims isn't quick, and there are no clues about the owner of the sixth arm.
A close-knit team of investigators with Criminologist Goran Gavila as the central point is assigned the case. An experienced investigator, Gavila is naturally inclined towards being rebellious, but he has his working methods and he and his team and comfortable with each other. Mila Vasquez is a young female police officer with a difficult past, who is equally rebellious, boyish, prickly, unable to relate to others, but with an eerie ability to locate missing people. She's bought into Gavila's team for this case. They are able to work together well, his team aren't so easy for Mila to get on with.
The investigating team have a difficult task, as the bodies slowly starting to appear, they are looking for a serial killer, and the sixth victim - not reported missing and very possibly still alive. The killer seems to be leaving macabre clues with each discovery of a new body, and the team must move quickly and deftly to have a chance of keeping her alive.
I came away from THE WHISPERER really unsure about how I feel about the book. On the one hand it's an interesting, complex plot with some twists at the end that came as a big surprise. On the other hand there's yet another damaged investigator; a frisson of romance between the two central characters, a team that doesn't handle the imposition of an outsider well; a cast of characters with secrets. Combine all of that with yet another serial killer targeting children and there's a real sense of been there / done that if you read a lot of crime fiction. Of course it's unreasonable to assume that any book is going to be completely unique, and there are elements here that have a freshness about them. The pairing of a cop and a scientific investigator was well done - creating a different dynamic between the two central characters, shown up particularly by the cop versus cop tensions between Mila and the team. Also THE WHISPERER used the stagey, calculating way that the killer used his victims to play games with the investigating team in a chilling and uncomfortably realistic manner.
I think my greatest sense of disappointment in THE WHISPERER is that there was no particular sense of a place or a culture in which the killings are occurring. The location wasn't obvious, the book could have been set anywhere, so I never quite got a complete sense of reality, it somehow seemed to dissipate the threat. The damaged central investigator line also didn't quite work - it was almost too predictable, as was the romantic entanglement, and the rest of the team's antagonism. The antagonism seemed too broad brush, and whilst there is some attempt at explanation, some justification if you like, it was hard to move past the tension for tension's sake feeling.
Having said all of that, it's a good plot, with some cleverly done twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing, and will engage. The way the characters secrets are revealed works in the main, although some readers may agree that some of the elements are a tad unbelievable, even for fiction. Overall I came away conflicted, not sure enough to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but certainly not able to say that I didn't like it at all. But that's not so surprising with a debut book so I'd definitely read another by this author.
A FLORENTINE DEATH - Michele Giuttari
Michele Giuttari is a real-life Italian policeman, head of the Squadra Mobile for around 8 years in his own right, so it's not too much of a stretch to believe that his central protagonist, Michele Ferrara, is more than a little autobiographical. The author has allowed his character to be slightly quirky, but undoubtedly he is the hero of the piece, and given the cases that Giutarri investigated, including the Monster of Florence, the reader has to assume that some of the events aren't that far from real life as well.
As the bodies are found, seemingly pointlessly mutilated, we get to know Ferrara along the way. There is a very Italian feeling to these books, probably helped by sideways forays into the world of high opera and art, food and wine, to say nothing of the references to the architecture and layout of Florence. There is a strong sexual element to this book, and the plot itself is nicely complicated, but positioned firmly in something that seems oh so Italian - revenge. Whilst it's not that hard to pick the who, the how, and even take an educated guess at the why - the entire why is revealed late in the book, as the chase of the killer draws to its end.
There's not a lot of suspense in A FLORENTINE DEATH, and, on a few occasions, there is a slightly unpleasant worshipful tone around the central protagonist. The main clanger was some simply bizarre elements to the sexual assault of one of the female characters that could risk readers wanting to throw the book against a wall, but overall, somewhat unexpectedly, A FLORENTINE DEATH was still quite interesting. Even if you knew nothing of the author's background, there is a sense of reality about the way that the events are portrayed and there's a great sense of Florence and Italy about the book. The translation reads very smoothly in English, whilst still retaining a lovely feeling of an Italian lilt and sensibility.
A FLORENTINE DEATH is the first book by Michele Giuttari. The second, A DEATH IN TUSCANY, has recently been translated.
A VENETIAN RECKONING - Donna Leon
Rather than the normal method of being called out, Commisarrio Guido Brunetti learns of the death of prominent international lawyer Carlo Trevisan from the headlines in the newspaper the next day on the way to work.
What starts off as a baffling investigation of a seemingly blameless victim, turns into something altogether different as a suicide and another shooting see the death of a well-known Accountant, and then Trevisan's own brother-in-law. What is not immediately clear is why these three become victims.
Brunetti is desperate to find some clues about the victim's background and after finding his teenage daughter knows Trevisan's daughter, enlists her help in doing some digging into the background of the lawyer, despite his wife's firm objections.
A little flat in the early stages of the book, the plot of this book evolves slowly and can be a little predictable. To compensate there are some wonderful observations of the landscape and the nature of the Venetian people in particular.
This series is as much about Guido Brunetti, his family, his food and his wine as it is about Venetian life, crime and corruption. The only possible ongoing weakness in this series can be the frequent references to the corruption of Italian society, which although valid, can be repetitive. That is, however, a minor quibble.