Part of the fun of summering in Italy (if only figuratively) is getting to know a particular city or region in the country both through the author's use of description but also through my own extracurricular research (thank you Google Images). It's interesting to see if or how an author uses setting. Sometimes it's very obvious and other times it is quite subtle. Sometimes you get more of a sense of how the people interact or particulars of the culture. An author might be quite descriptive in how they write about a place down to the very weather, but other times they simply stick to developing the characters to tell their story. I thought foreign authors writing about Italy would rely much more on setting than Italians writing about their own country, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes the setting becomes almost another character. My favorite stories are the ones that have a little of everything, which gives a full sense of what a place and the people are like and the things that happen there.
Grace Brophy's The Last Enemy has a nice mix of elements, both setting and characters are nicely developed and the pacing is well done--nothing too exrtaneous but just enough detail to make things interesting. The story is set in Umbria, which is Italy's only landlocked region and also one of the smallest.
An American woman is found murdered in the crypt of her Italian relatives. The final wish of Rita Minelli's mother was to be buried in her native Assisi. Unhappily for the Casati family Rita came, buried her mother and decided to stay. A spinster of 45 she had taken care of her mother most of her adult life, a job that went unappreciated. Rita gave up the chance to marry in order to cater to her mother's whims and wishes. She married an American GI and moved to Brooklyn after the war rather than live in poverty in Italy, and Rita was their only child.
Commissario Alessandro Cenni of the Perugian Questura is called to investigate the crime in Assisi. Much respected by his colleagues and his superiors he works mostly on cases dealing with terrorism or international crime. He studied law and fell in love with a fellow student, but Chiara was kidnapped and never found. Italy in the 70s was a volatile place, so when one finger was sent to her family Alex was sure she must have been murdered. Twenty years later he is still haunted by her disappearance. Alex is a twin--his brother Renato is a priest, which caused him much consternation as a young man. They circle each other warily, but Alex is close to his Swedish grandmother, who is the family matriarch having run the chocolate business after the death of his grandfather.
Alex is joined by Piero and Elena in the investigation. Piero is fond of his food, and it shows on his waistline, but he's dedicated and experienced and also enraptured by Sgt. Antolini who also assists on the case. Elena is a feminist who doesn't mind getting her hands dirty even if it means climbing into dumpsters looking for clues, but shakes her head at Piero's infatuation.
The body of Rita Minelli was found by a Croation-born immigrant who sells flowers but once worked for the Casati family. Foreigners are always high on the list of suspects, particularly when the other suspects include a once-aristocratic family with close political ties to the city's government officials.
None of the Casati family was happy that Rita had insinuated herself into their home and their lives. Count Casati and his English wife run a successful language school and are barely pleasant to Rita. Their daughter Artemisia is an art historian who wrote a feminist interpretation of the artist (and her namesake) Artemisia Gentileschi, which has helped land the directorship of an important museum. She's an awful snob and hated Rita, who after years of being a frumpy school teacher, decides to dress like the beautiful Artemisia.
The Casati's granddaughter, Paola, was orphaned young when her parents, died in a bomb explosion (one of their making by the way--the 70s really were volatile in Italy). Paola's father Camillo was the Casati's pride and joy. And now Paola is rebelling and has secrets of her own.
And there are at least three mystery men in Rita's life. Her new life in Italy was provocative and exciting and cut far too short.
Particulars to the Case:
The crime takes place during Holy Week, which is ironic since Assisi is a very holy city, but it seems criminals know no boundary. Not only was Rita's body found in the family crypt, but it was positioned in such a way to imply she had also been assaulted, which lends a certain ick factor, though it is happily not dwelled upon. Alex's boss puts pressure on the investigator to come to a quick and satisfying (though satisfying for whom?) conclusion to the case--meaning the obvious perpetrator is probably the the foreign woman and it's best not to make waves. The Casati family is rich and influential, but Alex refuses to handle them with the kid gloves his superiors wish.
I've noticed in Italian crime novels there is often the whiff of a desire for an easy and fast conclusion--expediancy at the cost of truth (truth is always relative though, right?), and also a hint of corruption within the ranks of those in charge and investigating the crime. But maybe that's actually the same all over.
I very much enjoyed The Last Enemy and am quite taken with Alessandro Cenni and his colleagues. Brophy has created an interesting cast of characters that I want to read more about and see how they develop both individually and as a group of investigators. I also love the setting of medieval Perugia and like to get an insider's view (well sort of insider as Brophy is an American who has lived in Perugia) of Italian culture. I have her second Cenni mystery all lined up, Deadly Paradise. I hope she will write more books. My only problem with trying new authors in this reading project is discovering that I want to read more of each author's books.
You can read more about Grace Brophy here, and there is an interesting interview with her here. The photo at the top of my post is from the wikipedia entry on Assisi, which is not copyrighted and can be shared. It is a panoramic view of Assisi. Nice, don't you think?