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A Murder in Tuscany by Christobel Kent

The question when you have just finished a detective novel is what makes such a book good or better. It cannot just be the quality of the writing. Prose is just words and has no life until it’s used in service of a reasonable plot. We then get into genres. To distinguish a thriller from detective fiction, we would have to say there’s no need for the author to supply explosions and car chases when a detective is in charge. But a thriller cannot be considered a success unless a team of ex-Navy Seals or SAS-type commandos abseils from a helicopter in the face of a drug gang armed to the teeth with surface-to-air missiles and AK47s. This is not say there cannot be helicopters in detective fiction or a mystery to resolve in a thriller. But, to distinguish our genre stereotypes, we have to measure the level of violence and count the number of little grey cells employed.

A Murder in Tuscany by Christobel Kent (Minotaur, 2011) (published as A Fine and Private Place in the UK) is the second mystery to feature Sandro Cellini, the first being The Drowning River (or A Time of Mourning in the UK). There’s another called The Dead Season and four other standalone novels, so this is an author with a growing track record. Our hero is a disgraced ex-police officer who’s struggling to earn a living as a private investigator in Florence, Italy. He drives a beat-up car. The woman he asks for help putters around on one of those nice little scooters you tend to see weaving in and out of traffic in European cities. From this, you will understand we are firmly in the land of the little grey cells. If a villain was making a run for it, we know our hero would use his cell phone to call the police who would ignore the call.

Christobel Kent at rest

At the start, our hero has picked up a fairly trivial job following a teenage girl. Her father is convinced she’s fallen in with a bad crowd and wants to know the worst. Fortunately, Cellini is rescued from continuing embarrassment by being called back into a case he dealt with shortly after leaving the police. He did a background check on a woman who has now died in a car accident. Except, perhaps, this is not quite a straightforward accident. In this, Christobel Kent is playing the same game as in The Drowning River where a widow is convinced her husband would never commit suicide. So here we have a car off the road. There’s absolutely no evidence the brakes or suspension were tampered with. It seems clear a woman, notorious for driving too fast, hit a patch of ice at night and crashed into a shallow ravine with a small river at the bottom. She managed to crawl out of the car, but the cold of winter then completed the process of inflicting death.

Except there was an e-mail sent that could be considered a kind of threat. There are also straws in the wind suggesting there’s something not quite right about this death. So Cellini drives slowly to the Castle Orfeo where a small group of artists is enjoying a sabbatical from the world, courtesy of an Arts Trust. The dead lady was the public face of this no doubt worthwhile enterprise. It also seems she was not the most popular person in the Castle, having offended most of the staff and savaged many of the artists in her supposedly anonymous review blog. This recreates the Golden Age of Detection situation of a small number of people in a relatively isolated community, any one of whom could have committed a crime, assuming this death to have been a crime.

Christobel Kent has a slow, methodical approach to writing, creating a slightly dense style full of local colour and detail. There’s a real sense of Italy in the bones of this book, but the main strength lies in the primary characters, all of whom emerge in full 3D and with absolute credibility. Cellini’s marriage is going through a difficult patch. His wife has been treated for cancer. While enduring chemotherapy, she met many younger women who died. The fact she is older but has survived, unsettles her. Sandro is uncertain how to relate to her at this difficult time and wonders whether he should have listened to her advice and found a paying job. Although he’s good at being a detective, it’s difficult to earn enough to cover costs. Then there’s Giuli Sarto who seems to be drifting into a part-time position helping Cellini even though she knows there’s no money to pay her. Over the course of the book, the three exchange ideas and independently decide who must have done it.

Except the route Cellini takes is like following a trail of breadcrumbs. Just over halfway through the investigation at the Castle, it becomes obvious why the deceased left in her car at that time of night. This means we have to look for the precise mechanism to trigger the departure. In every sense, this is a delight as our dogged detective tracks down the evidence which, for entirely legitimate reasons, points to each of the suspects in turn. This is a superior plot, presenting an entirely satisfying solution to an interesting puzzle. Although Christobel Kent’s writing style demands you take your time to savour the detail, A Murder in Tuscany more than repays the effort with a top-class murder mystery to solve. More importantly, when you look back, you can see how fairly all the relevant information is seeded throughout the text. This makes A Murder in Tuscany a must-read for anyone who enjoys quality detective fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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