I love mysteries. From the hardest of the hard-boiled to…well, ok, I don’t really care for cozies, but I’ve read them…but I’m especially fond of mysteries that give me a strong sense of place and people along with a good puzzle. For some reason, Italian settings seem to capture all three in style and substance. (Barry has written about Andrea Camilleri’s excellent Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, plus there’s the Guido Brunetti collection, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, and plenty of other series where the protagonist visits Italy.) Christobel Kent’s series featuring Sandro Cellini (The Drowning River is the first) stands with the best.
Sandro is something unusual for Italian mysteries – a private detective. A disgraced ex-cop, he’s been ordered by his wife to hang out his shingle and get out of her hair. Resigned to sitting around an office, he’s surprised when he gets his first client: an older woman whose husband died in the Arno River. Verdict: suicide. Cellini takes the case mostly gratis to comfort her, but discovers right away that the man’s last hours leave questions. What exactly was Claudio Gentileschi, architect, faithful husband, Holocaust survivor, doing when he wasn’t at home or work?
Then a young English art student disappears. Sandro had encountered her before and her mother hires him to be her “representative” to the Italian police while she makes up her mind whether or not she cares. No big deal, Veronica’s done it before, she’s got some mysterious guy she’s probably shacking up with, and she’ll come back to art school when her cash runs low. Sure her instructors and her mousy roommate are worried, but Sandro will take care of it. And he does, and learns more about Claudio and the business of Florentine art in the process.
Kent keeps the puzzle intriguing and builds to a satisfying resolution. But she also builds characters the reader knows will play important roles in Sandro’s future. His wife Luisa, who has breast cancer and is struggling with her decision to have a mastectomy; Giulietta Sarto, the former prostitute who ended Sandro’s career and is the closest thing he and Luisa have to a child; his former colleagues; but most of all, Florence itself.
This is the Florence where regular folks live alongside the tourists and the art students who come to study in the Mecca of classical art training. Ordinary bars with extraordinary food and companionable bartenders, secret passages in and out of the Boboli Gardens, odd locals who are part of the daily background of any city. In this story, the rains are continuously falling and the Arno is threatening to overflow its banks in a disaster that would equal the L’Alluvion of 1966. (For a great book about the aftermath of that flood, check out Robert Hellenga’s The Sixteen Pleasures.) Sandro Cellini knows Florence better than most anyone, and he leads us on an intimate tour while solving a puzzling mystery. Who could ask for more?