A good detective story taking place in a beautiful part of Italy is a real treat for people who enjoy reading crime mysteries and also happen to love Italy. Use this website to find out more about the locations, the lifestyle and the food and the wine experienced by the characters created by your favourite authors.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Party in San Niccolò

A tale of dark deeds carried out against a backdrop of incredible beauty


Authors are praised by reviewers and readers if they describe the locations of their novels well, especially if they have chosen a famous city that is familiar to many people.

I have enjoyed many good novels set in Florence, but I don’t think I have ever appreciated the way an author has portrayed the city quite as much as I did while reading A Party in San Niccolò.

A Party in San Niccolò is a crime novel set in Florence
A Party in San Niccolò is a
crime novel set in Florence

Christobel Kent brings Florence to life in the novel and she reawakened many of my own memories of the city, reminding me that I also once went for an afternoon snack at Procacci in the Via de’ Tornabuoni and of the time when I first saw the Boboli gardens.

In A Party in San Niccolò, a young English woman, Gina, visits Florence for the first time and we see the city through her eyes. She is going to stay with an old friend, Jane, needing a rest from the demands of her husband and three young children.

Jane’s marriage to a handsome Italian architect, Niccolò, turns out not to be as perfect as it first seems and Gina also finds herself becoming involved in the problems of one of Niccolò’s daughters, Beatrice, who comes home in a state of shock after learning that her best friend has been found dead.

When Gina goes to Niccolò’s country villa for a few days, she makes an unpleasant discovery and soon finds herself in the midst of a murder investigation in the Tuscan countryside. She is helped by an English friend of the family, Frank, and although she is happily married, Gina finds herself drawn to him.

Throughout the whole novel we are told about a party due to happen at the end of the week to celebrate the birthday of Frances, one of the British expats in Florence.

As Gina and Frank uncover more evidence about the murder of Beatrice’s friend, the night of the party draws closer. Matters come to a head in a dazzling denouement as the characters meet up at the party, held in a beautiful garden in Florence that is evocatively described by Christobel Kent.

A Party in San Niccolò was Christobel Kent’s debut novel and was first published in 2003.

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Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Death in Tuscany

A Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara novel by Michele Giuttari


Giuttari's novels are set in the historic and atmospheric city of Florence
Giuttari's novels are set in the historic and
atmospheric city of Florence

One thing you can rely on in a Michele Giuttari novel is that Italian police procedure will be accurately described. It is particularly fascinating for readers who enjoy crime novels set in Italy to see behind the scenes of an Italian police station and be on the inside of a major police investigation.

Michele Giuttari is well qualified to describe the way the Squadra Mobile (Flying Squad) unit of the Florence police operates as he once headed the unit himself when he was a serving officer in the Polizia di Stato.

This is the second novel in his series featuring Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara and the reader finds out more about the man behind the job title and his earlier life in Sicily as the case he is working on involves one of his oldest and dearest friends.

The novel begins with a young girl found unconscious and scantily dressed in remote countryside in the hills above Florence. She later dies in hospital and the cause of her death is put down to a drugs overdose. The hospital staff and some of the police assume she was a drug addict and probably a prostitute.

Michele Giuttari writes with authority as a former serving police officer
Michele Giuttari writes with authority as
a former serving police officer
But Chief Superintendent Ferrara is not so sure. For one thing the girl is very young, possibly between 13 and 15 years old. There is nothing on her body to identify her and no one has reported her missing.

Ferrara digs deeper and embarks on an investigation that soon throws up connections with some of the richest and most powerful people in Florence.

In the meantime, his old friend from Sicily, bookshop owner Massimo Verga, goes missing while staying on the Tuscan coast.

Ferrara and his wife, Petra, are extremely worried about the disappearance of Massimo and therefore Ferrara hands over the inquiry into the death of the unidentified girl to one of his colleagues so that he can try to find his friend.

The Carabinieri are handling the case and are working on the theory that his friend, Massimo, has absconded with his lover, a rich, beautiful businesswoman, after they have killed her ex-husband.

They resent Ferrara’s interference and put in a complaint about him, which results in his suspension from duty. But he is not content to leave the case to the Carabinieri and continues to investigate unofficially, with the help of his loyal team of officers and his good friend, Deputy Prosecutor Anna Giulietti.

It is a race against time to find Massimo before anything happens to him and also to prove he is innocent of the murder.

But Ferrara finds he is up against the Mafia and a gang of ruthless Albanian drugs bosses, as well as his own Commissioner, who is enraged both by his unorthodox behaviour and because he has fallen foul of the Carabinieri.

A Death in Tuscany is well plotted and gripping, with the solution to the crimes coming right at the end. The underlying themes of friendship and loyalty are neatly interwoven with the action.

 

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(Image of Florence by Mark Gilder from Pixabay)

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Haunted Hotel

A novel set in Venice by celebrated 19th century author Wilkie Collins

The historic Caffè Florian on St Mark's Square features in The Haunted Hotel
The historic Caffè Florian on St Mark's Square
features in The Haunted Hotel
Wilkie Collins was an English author known for writing sensation novels, or sensation fiction, which was at the peak of its popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. His 1860 novel, The Woman in White, which has been adapted for numerous theatre, film and television productions, is one of the finest examples of sensation fiction, so called because it was written to play on the nerves and excite the senses of the reader.

However, his 1868 novel, The Moonstone, has been talked of as the first English detective novel as it established many of the ground rules of the genre. There is a detective, Sergeant Cuff, a country house setting, false suspects and a final twist in the plot.

So when I received a copy of The Haunted Hotel as a present recently I wondered how closely it would resemble a detective story, which is my favourite genre. I was also intrigued because a lot of the story takes place in Venice, a city that I love.  Collins wrote The Haunted Hotel in 1878, ten years after The Moonstone was published.

Collins lived in Italy for nearly two years with his family when he was in his early teens. He also toured Italy with his friend, the novelist Charles Dickens, in 1853 and he returned to Italy with different friends for several visits during the 1860s and 1870s.

In The Haunted Hotel, the reader might think that the novel will deal with the supernatural, as very early in the book questions are raised about being able to predict the future and about sensing evil in a room.

The story begins with a London doctor being visited by a foreign Countess who is desperate for him to tell her whether she is evil, or insane. She is about to marry a nobleman, Lord Montbarry, but has discovered he was engaged to another woman when he proposed to her. However, the lady has subsequently released him from the engagement.

Wilkie Collins was a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens
Wilkie Collins was a contemporary
and friend of Charles Dickens 
The Countess says she has been assured the other woman did not blame her for the broken engagement as the true course of events had been explained to her. But she says that when she eventually met Lord Montbarry’s former fiancée and was aware of the other woman’s eyes upon her, she turned ‘cold from head to foot’ and experienced great fear.

After the marriage has taken place and the couple have gone away on their honeymoon, the story is told from the point of view of the jilted woman, Agnes. She is perceived by all her friends to be a good, kind and loving person, in contrast with the descriptions of the sinister Countess, with her strange behaviour and white face and extremely dark eyes.

Mrs Ferrari, a woman Agnes has known since childhood, comes to ask her for help. She is married to an Italian courier who desperately needs work. She asks Agnes to recommend her husband to a newly-married couple who are about to tour Italy. When Agnes discovers the couple are Lord and Lady Montbarry, she is reluctant to intervene, but out of sympathy for the woman she eventually agrees that the courier can mention her name to help him secure the job.

Mr Ferrari accompanies the newlyweds to Italy while Agnes goes to stay with friends in Ireland.

On her return to London she receives news from Mrs Ferrari that the courier’s letters have stopped coming and no one has seen or heard of him for weeks.

Then Mrs Ferrari receives a bizarre letter. It contains a £1000 note and a piece of paper with the words: ‘To console you for the loss of your husband.’

A few days later, Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, calls to see Agnes to break the news to her that Lord Montbarry has died of bronchitis in the Venetian palazzo where he had been staying.

Collins makes it seem inevitable that all the protagonists will meet again in Venice in the future. The palace where Lord Montbarry died is converted into a hotel and his brother, Henry, buys shares in it.

Later, friends of Agnes invite her on a trip to Italy with them and they plan to visit Venice.

A recent edition of The Haunted Hotel by Collins Vintage
A recent edition of The Haunted
Hotel
by Collins Vintage 
Henry and his sister and brother all visit the newly-converted hotel that he has invested in on separate occasions. They all feel ill after staying in the best room, number 14, where they smell a foul odour. It turns out to be the room where Lord Montbarry died.

Events conspire to have Agnes allocated to that room when she arrives at the hotel with her party. The sinister Countess, who also happens to have returned to Venice, is staying at the Hotel Danieli on the Riva Schiavoni, but when she discovers that Agnes is staying at the newly converted palace she moves into the hotel herself.

Agnes then endures a night of horror in the room where Lord Montbarry died. At this point, I was still wondering if this is a ghost story, or a crime novel.

There is no detective in the novel, but Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, sets out to discover what has taken place. He visits the room above number 14 and makes a grisly discovery. This is the room in the old palace that had been occupied by Baron Rivar, the brother of the Countess, who enjoyed making chemical experiments.

The sinister Countess is then found dead, having suffered a ruptured blood vessel in the brain. She leaves an unfinished play that provides Henry with clues to the fate of the missing Italian courier.

My conclusion is that Wilkie Collins did write a crime story after all. There was the sudden death of Lord Montbarry, whose life was insured for £10,000 pounds in favour of his widow, the sinister Countess. The insurance company investigates the death but can find nothing to suggest it was not natural causes. The Italian courier disappears mysteriously. The amateur detective, Henry Westwick, uncovers the secret of the room above number 14 and, using the unfinished play written by the Countess, finally discovers what happened to his brother.

A good half of the book takes place in Venice, which is sensitively evoked by Collins, which means it can also be described as a crime novel set in Italy - and almost certainly one of the earliest written.

We know Collins was in Italy with friends in the 1860s and 1870s and may have stayed in Venice in a hotel converted from an old palazzo. Many Victorians visited Venice expecting to see the beauty and the mystery that Lord Byron had described in his letters and poetry 50 years before.

In one scene a character leaves the hotel ‘by the lanes that led to the square of St Mark’. Revived by the night breeze he walked into the square avoiding the crowds under the colonnades. He ‘walked slowly up and down the noble open space of the square, bathed in the light of the rising moon.’ He is accosted by the sinister Countess, dressed all in black, who demands that he take her for a drink into Caffè Florian on the right side of the square as you look in the direction of St Mark’s.

The coffee house opened in 1720 and continued to serve coffee and fine wines during the fall of the Republic of Venice and the periods of French and then Austrian rule. It was the only meeting place that admitted women, which is why Casanova used it as a hunting ground for female company.

When Collins visited Venice, the décor of Caffè Florian would have been very similar to how it looks today and readers who have been there on visits to Venice will be able to imagine the scene that takes place in the cafe.

The Haunted Hotel has many of the ingredients of a crime novel and the truth is not revealed until the end of the novel in the tradition of the genre. I can definitely recommend the book to crime fiction fans and particularly to people who love mystery novels set in Italy.

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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Wilful Behaviour

A Commissario Brunetti mystery by Donna Leon

Donna Leon's detective Guido Brunetti operates from a canalside Questura similar to this one
Donna Leon's detective Guido Brunetti operates
from a canalside Questura similar to this one
Everyone seems to agree that Claudia Leonardo was a model student and a nice, polite young woman.

Her landlady, her flatmate and her tutor at the University of Venice all speak highly of her.

So why would someone visit her apartment one day and stab her to death?

Guido Brunetti, a Commissario of the Polizia di Stato in Venice, is determined to find the answer because he does not believe such a frenzied attack was the result of her having surprised a burglar.

His wife, Paola, was Claudia’s tutor and he had also recently met the young woman himself. Claudia had been to see him at the Questura to ask if it was possible to obtain a posthumous pardon for crimes committed by her grandfather.

Brunetti’s investigation causes him to look into events in Venice during World War II when citizens were desperate to sell their most valuable possessions in order to flee the city before the Germans arrived.

The Commissario visits Claudia’s grandfather’s former partner, a sick old lady living in a modest apartment apparently in poverty, despite the fact that her walls are covered with original art works that he estimates would be worth millions.

Wilful Behaviour is the 11th book
in Leon's Brunetti series
With technological assistance from his friend Signorina Elettra, the secretary to the Vice Questore, he is able to look into the financial affairs of the murder victim and discover Claudia regularly received large sums of money that she then gave away to charities.

The reader is able to accompany Brunetti as he walks from one end of Venice to the other in search of information and can admire the architecture and the views from the bridges over the canals with him.

And each time he returns to his own apartment near San Polo the reader can almost smell the risotto with zucca, the seabass with artichokes and the rabbit with walnuts and olives being cooked for him by Paola.

As the story develops it becomes more and more compelling reading as Brunetti uncovers layers of corruption to at last reveal the present day evil that led to Claudia’s murder.

Wilful Behaviour by Donna Leon won the CWA Macallan Silver Dagger.

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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Medusa

 

An Aurelio Zen Mystery by Michael Dibdin

Once again Detective Aurelio Zen finds himself with an awkward case to investigate that could have serious political implications.

Lake Lugano is one of the locations to which Zen's inquiries lead in Medusa
Lake Lugano is one of the locations to which
Zen's inquiries lead in Medusa
Austrian cavers exploring abandoned military tunnels in the Italian alps have discovered the body of a man at the bottom of a deep shaft.

Zen is asked to look into the case even though it has been assumed the death was accidental.

But then the body is stolen from the morgue and the Defence Ministry puts a news blackout on the case.

Zen has already been to see the cave and been given photographs of the body by the cavers.

But his superior, Brugnoli, summons him back to Rome and arranges to meet him secretly in a park to discuss the delicate political nuances.

The official line is that the body is that of a soldier who was accidentally killed during a training exercise many years ago. The defence ministry say he was a member of an elite special force modelled on the British SAS that never existed officially and therefore secrecy about the discovery has to be maintained.

Brugnoli tells him that because of the delicate state of the current political situation in Italy there is a lot at stake both for his department and the future of the country but that a skilled operator such as Zen might be able to turn up some interesting material that could be useful.

He says that ideally he wants a huge scandal that will be front page news and implicate the entire defence ministry, but that he will settle for anything that can be used against them.

Zen is to work on the case on his own and not to communicate with him overtly, but to arrange another clandestine meeting with him if necessary.

Zen’s enquiries take him to Milan, the Po Valley and Lake Lugano on the border between Italy and Switzerland. He has to operate unofficially and work round the clock but he manages to find out why the dead man was killed and by whom and achieves justice for the victim. With the help of a veteran journalist he goes to visit, he even manages to get the optimum result his superior has asked for.

Brilliantly plotted and beautifully written, I think that Medusa is one of Michael Dibdin’s finest novels and well worth reading.

I agree with one of the reviews on the back cover that says: ‘Dibdin’s Medusa is just as good as an Italian holiday.’

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(Lake Lugano picture by Jonathan Reichel via Pixabay)


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Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Wings of the Spinx

An Inspector Montalbano Mystery by Andrea Camilleri

 

Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano stories are set in southeast Sicily
Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano stories are
set in southeast Sicily 
Inspector Montalbano is called in to investigate after the naked body of a young woman is found in a rubbish dump on his territory. She has been shot in the face and is unrecognisable, but there is a tattoo of a sphinx moth on her left shoulder.

Montalbano is struggling with his feelings about getting older and anxious that his long distance, but long lasting relationship with his girlfriend, Livia, is in trouble.

But he sets out to try to establish the victim’s identity, with the help of Mimi Augello, his deputy, and his loyal and hard working officer, Fazio.

The inspector soon discovers that there are three other young women in the area with the same tattoo on their left shoulders but they can’t help him identify the dead woman as they are all missing.

When his enquiries lead him to interview a Monsignor, the head of a religious charity, who says they rescued the girls from sex traffickers, the Inspector suddenly smells a huge rat.

But he is hampered in his work when he is hauled up before his boss, the Commissioner, who is angry that his questions have offended the Monsignor.

He is also under time pressure because he has promised to free himself from work to be able to spend some meaningful time with Livia.

It doesn’t help his mood that the weather is so bad the fishermen can’t go out to sea and day after day there is no fresh fish on the menu at Enzo’s Trattoria.

But Montalbano has to keep going, to get justice for the dead girl and to be able to free himself of the case to concentrate on his relationship with Livia.

He has just unmasked the killer and is on the way to the airport to meet Livia when someone else involved in the case is shot in the face.

He has to race against time to tie up the loose ends so he can hand the case over to the chief of the Flying Squad but still get the resolution he wants to achieve. There are many twists and turns and the suspense is maintained until he finally boards a plane to Genoa in his desperate pursuit of Livia to try to save their relationship.

But when he arrives at Livia’s apartment in Boccadasse, a village just outside Genoa, Montalbano gets a big surprise…

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More Montalbano stories reviewed:

August Heat

The Patience of the Spider

Rounding the Mark

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Andrea Camilleri profile and full list of Montalbano titles


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Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Marshal’s Own Case

A Marshal Guarnaccia Investigation by Magdalen Nabb
 

Marshall Guarnaccia investigates grisly goings-on after dark in Florence
Marshall Guarnaccia investigates grisly
goings-on after dark in Florence
Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia’s superior officer in the Carabinieri, Captain Maestrangelo, puts him in charge of a murder case after a chopped up body is found in plastic bags on his territory.

It takes the Marshal away from his familiar world in the Carabinieri station at the Pitti Palace and plunges him into the nocturnal world of the transgender prostitutes operating in Florence.

For despite having breasts, the body which has been neatly sawn into pieces and dispersed between a number of plastic bags, turns out to be that of a man not a woman.

Despite observing that the Marshal never has much to say for himself, the Captain rates his ability and knows that the Marshal doesn’t miss much, as evidenced by his previous successes.

But the Marshal has to learn quickly, in order to operate within a community he has no experience of, and which seems a long way from the daily difficulties of tourists and their lost property and passports that he is used to.

He is dismayed when the Captain hands him a pile of files relating to previous murders of prostitutes and their clients in Florence, all of which are marked Unsolved.

Magdalen Nabb set 14
crime novels in Florence
But the Captain does assign to him one of his own men, Ferrini, a friendly and talkative officer, who knows his way around in the shadowy world of transgender prostitution.

Guarnaccia quickly develops some sympathy for the tragic men, who have had surgery and been given hormone treatments to make them look like women, so that they can satisfy the desires of their regular clients, who are usually seemingly respectable men living in Florence.

When Peppina, one of the transgender prostitutes, is arrested and locked in a cell, suspected of the murder of what turns out to be Lulu, one of her rivals, Guarnaccia believes she is not guilty of the crime.

He is so sure of Peppina’s innocence, despite the evidence against her, he insists on continuing his inquiries, even though he is urged to drop the investigation because the Prosecutor has said he is satisfied with the result.

Against a backdrop of other problems, with one of his two young sons not doing well at school and getting into trouble, and his wife urging him to look for the missing son of an acquaintance from back home in Sicily, he keeps going out at night in terrible weather to try to solve the crime to his own satisfaction.

His patience and tenacity pays off and he catches the real killer, strives to get the most lenient sentence for Peppina for other charges she is facing, and can then finally turn his attention to his own, troubled young son.

This is another compelling mystery by Magdalen Nabb, which exposes a shadowy part of life going on at night in the beautiful, historic city of Florence. 

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