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.
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.