It’s been a hard year for Sandro Cellini. The ex-police officer is still struggling to get his private investigation business off the ground. He misses the camaraderie and respect that came with being a member of a traditional police force, and he’s frustrated by the pettiness of the cases he keeps landing. He mostly finds himself trailing mistrusted spouses and secondary students on behalf of their worried significant others.
Recommend this product?
And speaking of significant others, he’s worried about his beloved wife Luisa. They’ve been living under a cloud of tension since her cancer diagnosis and chemo treatments. Now that she’s returning to health, she’s also returning to her work in a department store. Her new promotion has her spending more time with her boss than ever before, and for the first time, she’s decided she wants to travel for the business. Sandro senses that they have somehow grown apart, and he worries that he’s losing her, but he doesn’t know how to say it without sounding accusatory or desperate.
It’s into this unsettled state of affairs that a case comes calling. The mystery involves the death of Loni Meadows, the director of a retreat house for artists in the Etruscan hills outside of Florence, Italy. Cellini knows about Loni Meadows because he was asked to do a background check on her when the retreat center first hired her. When her powerful and estranged husband decides he’s not sure her car accident in the icy hills was in fact an accident, he gets in touch with the retreat center manager, Luca Gallo, who reluctantly calls Celinni in again.
The mystery surrounding Loni Meadow’s death becomes the heart of A Murder in Tuscany, a beautifully written novel by Christobel Kent. This is my first foray into Kent’s mysteries but it definitely won’t be my last. As a fan of well-written, character-rich detective fiction, I felt like I had won the lottery by the time I was a few chapters into this deliberately paced and plotted book. Cellini is a remarkably drawn detective: intelligent, sensitive, quiet, observant, the kind of man that potential suspects may initially feel a little uneasy around, but eventually open up to – at least if they have nothing to hide.
Besides Cellini, the other regular characters are also well-drawn. That would include Cellini’s wife Luisa and his office assistant Giuli, a woman involved in one of his earlier cases that he and Luisa (otherwise childless) have practically adopted as a daughter. At least I assume that both Luisa and Giuli are regulars, given their emotional place in Cellini’s life and their prominence in the background of the plot. This is the second of four Cellini mysteries Kent has written so far, though I happened to pick it up first and haven’t yet read The Drowning River (the debut novel of the series). I generally like to read series in order, but once I’d been pulled deep into this book, I didn’t want to put it down and back up. Kent gives enough background from the first book that I didn’t feel like I had to.
Secondary (and I’m guessing non-returning) characters are also well-drawn, especially Caterina, a young woman who works at the artist’s retreat house who becomes our point of view for a good bit of the action and whom Cellini takes into his confidence not long after he arrives to investigate. Because the novel, written in third person, moves back and forth between character points of view, we’ve already seen and heard a good deal at the retreat house before Cellini ever gets there. We’ve met all the potential suspects, and there are a lot of them. Besides Luca Gallo, the manager, and Caterina, a sort of intern, there are several other people on staff, including a cook, handyman, and maid. There’s also the owner of the Castle (where the retreat center is housed) who turns out to have known Loni Meadows quite well.
Then there are the artists on retreat: the Norwegian composer, the English novelist who has not had a book published in years, the young American woman who makes strange pottery, the older American writer who has recently lost her husband, the Italian pianist who lost the use of his legs in a terrorist attack. Each of these characters is well-sketched and believable, and practically all of them (along with the aforementioned staff people) feel like plausible suspects at one point or another. In fact, I was fooled multiple times before Kent pulled back the last layer on the solution of the gripping mystery.
Besides good characterization and plotting, however, the novel has something else going for it: poetic descriptive writing that builds a suspenseful atmospheric tone. Kent’s choice of setting – the dark, isolated Castle in the midst of mid-winter – lends a sort of emotional heaviness to the proceedings that you can practically feel as you turn pages. Cellini, already in the midst of a personal winter of the soul, feels it too, and as the reader bonds with his perspective, you take on some of the oppressiveness he’s pushing through as he searches for clues.
The pace of the story is somewhat slow, but that befits a novel with such strong characterization – you never feel that Kent is rushing to make a plot point, or trying too hard to get from point A to point B. And while it’s slow, the pace never seems to drag – it just seems made to fit the sluggish, chilly atmosphere of the Castle and the surrounding hills.
A Murder in Tuscany was a remarkable treat for this mystery-lover.
A Murder in Tuscany
Minotaur Books, 2010
Thank you to pestyside for adding this book to the database.