Ritual of Fire, D.V. Bishop

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Third in the Cesare Aldo series from D.V. Bishop, RITUAL OF FIRE is set in a time of change for Aldo, his colleagues and his personal life. He's been sent to the Tuscan countryside, hunting thieves and fugitives whilst Florence battles a heatwave, drought and what turns out to be a series of violent murders of rich merchants. Luckily there is a connection between these merchants and the town that Aldo is exiled in, with one of the deaths occuring locally, giving him more than enough reason to insert himself back into Florence and the ongoing investigation. Which is just as well because his young colleague, Strocchi is struggling. With increasingly complicated multiple murders and the religious fervour building in the city.

There's definitely something very odd about these merchant deaths. The first body was discovered by the night patrol, hanged and set ablaze on top of a cart, displayed in the city's main piazza. Forty years before on the exact same day, the puritanical monk Savonarola had been executed in the same way and place. The posters that immediately start appearing around Florence declaring Savonarola lives, and the mass hysteria, chanting and rumours that start swirling, make the heat and pressure that the citizenry is already dealing even more edgy, hysterical and very risky for authorities. More murders follow, more religious fervour builds, and the connection between the merchants becomes obvious, sending some high-profile residents of Florence into panic, fleeing the city to their hill-top villas, finding, to their cost, that the danger has followed them. Whoever is committing these murders is clever, resourceful and tricky to identify. Whatever personal qualms Strocchi has about Aldo's personal life have to be put aside, and whatever revenge his bosses are trying to inflict becomes less than important as they both battle to bring a cruel murderer to justice, and stop an entire population from losing their collective minds.

Having been a big fan of this series from its inception, it was particularly fascinating to read RITUAL OF FIRE at this particular point in history, when inciting mass violence seems so easy, and so many people are easily triggered into believing the most ridiculous of falsehoods. Everyone knows that the monk Savonarola was executed, yet so many people are rushing about the place chanting "Savonarola lives". People who know (or suspect), that have so many reasons to not give a toss about Cesare Aldo's sexual persuasion, are bent out of shape over it. Even the higher-ups, punishing a man who does a good job but says what he thinks / does what he believes is right, are motivated by ego, or power, or <insert your petty childish predilection of choice here>. All of this is so prescient with the world we live in today, that the novel should probably have come with a teeth-grinding may ensue warning. 

Where the second novel in the series, THE DARKEST SIN, explored and drew out the personal aspects of Aldo's life more, RITUAL OF FIRE returns to a plot based exploration of society and it's problems at the forefront, and the characters and their personal lives and inner thoughts building, bending and developing as they navigate the world around them. Except, of course, for Aldo, whose personal life remains hidden and circumspect. It's a fascinating series - not just for fans of historical fiction - it takes the reader into scenarios and motivations that still, soberingly, ring true today.

The fourth book in the series, A DIVINE FURY, has just been announced as a longlist contender for the 2024 McIlvanney Award (Bloody Scotland):…

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Florence. Summer, 1538.

A night patrol finds a rich merchant hanged and set ablaze in the city’s main piazza. More than mere murder, this killing is intended to put the fear of God into Florence. Forty years earlier on this date, puritanical monk Girolamo Savonarola was executed the same way in the same place. Does this new killing mean Savonarola’s vengeful spirit has risen again?

Or are his fanatical disciples plotting to revive the monk’s regime of holy terror? Cesare Aldo has his suspicions but is hunting thieves and fugitives in the Tuscan countryside, leaving Constable Carlo Strocchi to investigate the ritual killing. When another important merchant is slain even more publicly than the first, those rich enough to escape the summer heat are fleeing to their country estates. But the Tuscan hills can also be dangerous places.

Soon growing religious fervor combines with a scorching heatwave to drive the city ever closer to madness, while someone is stalking powerful men that forged lifelong alliances during the dark days of Savonarola and his brutal followers. Unless Aldo and Strocchi can work together to stop the killer, Florence could become a bonfire of the vanities once more . . .

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