Cold Tuscan Stone by David P Wagner
It’s in the nature of storytelling that every action should have a setting. Indeed, the where and when are essential building blocks to offering a credible context for the action and adding essential colour to the atmosphere. A steampunk story would be located in a Victorian version of London in the 1880s or 90s, a space opera would be set on a massive vessel, bristling with weapons of unimaginable power, the farmhouse might be on a blasted heath as lightning crackles around the night sky, and so on. Indeed, many authors trade on the exotic when it comes to locating the action. That way, even if the readers are finding the plot a little heavy going, they can at least be soaking up the detail of the culture (particularly the food) in colonial Tangier of the 1930s as an Islamically pious place infested by infidels, or in remote Tibet where people divide their time between tent and temple, or as in Cold Tuscan Stone by David P Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) where cosmopolitan northern Italians may be looting their history for illegal antiquities to export while eating robustly elegant food and sipping delicately flavoured wines.
Indeed, there’s a steady trade in mystery, adventure, thriller and romantic fiction that lets us wander round places we’ve heard of but never had the chance of visiting. It’s so much more convenient to open a book than get on an aeroplane or ship to journey off to sun and sand in some distant holiday location. And with an author at our side who’s positively bursting at the seams with interesting factoids about how these people live their lives, what social and political preoccupations they have, what style of clothing they affect, what types of food they eat, and so on, it’s all one long learning opportunity — sometimes with the chance to glean a few phrases of foreign languages should we ever encounter a visitor from Acapulco or Zanzibar (Mexican spanish and kiswahili respectively).
Anyway, this time we’re off to a slightly wintery Volterra in Tuscany with Rick Montoya, an American who makes his living as a translator and interpreter. He has the misfortune to have been to university with an Italian who now works for the Italian Art Squad, and his uncle is a rather famous police officer. It seems this makes him a suitable candidate to be recruited as an unofficial undercover agent. There are original Etruscan urns being spirited out of Italy. This pillaging of Roman history must be stopped. So our hero is sent into the suspected hotbed of export activity to shake the trees and beat the grass to see what emerges into the light. Being old and cantankerous, I don’t find this plot premise even remotely credible. A man with no training or previous background in police work would not be asked to walk into a potentially dangerous situation without detailed briefing or training in the use of “spycraft” or self-defensive techniques. He’s simply given a list of people to interview, the name of the local police chief with whom he’s to liaise, a credit card to cover his expenses, and off he goes. It’s simply extraordinary that he should be told to walk into the local police station as if no-one local would notice, or walk about the town with a mobile clamped to his ear, talking with a national policing agency as if no-one could overhear what was being said. He’s not even advised to conceal the list of people to interview or hide their background files. It’s as if the powers-that-be want him to stand out like an amateur so people will either ignore him or try to kill him, i.e. he could be the tethered goat to attract the tiger.
As is often the case, the same day he arrives, he talks with a man who works for one of the suspects. Minutes later, this man is killed. You can’t get a bigger contrivance than that. You would think the powers-that-be would be in full panic mode and call their amateur out of the firing line at the earliest opportunity. But, no, he’s allowed to soldier on, touring round, talking to everyone who will listen and pretending to be a buyer for looted antiquities. Yet, miraculously, someone does contact him and, as Sherlock would say, the game’s afoot. I would go so far as to say the plot is absurd. It’s clearly written by someone who has no real understanding of what it takes to be both original and credible. No professional criminal is going to make illegal deals with a man who walks in off the street without some form of authenticated introduction. Just handing over a business card would not impress anyone. Having no knowledge of Etruscan antiquities is going to raise red flags. How can someone so obviously ignorant be in the market for artifacts, fake or original? He’s not in a position to make any kind of informed judgement about what he’s shown. No-one even halfway competent would begin to trust him. Yet we’re asked to watch him talk to people. We also have moments of insight into the activities of the local police. After a while, they converge, shots are fired, there are arrests (sadly, there are no explosions so it’s not a thriller). And everyone who was on the side of the angels walks away wiser from the experience. Queue suitable music for closing credits and prepare yourself for the inevitable sequel as the uncle who’s an established police officer is obviously lining him up for another exciting adventure.
The descriptions of Rome and Volterra ring true, the menus reflect an informed palate, and there’s enough to convince us that this author knows Italy. But as to the rest of the book. . . Cold Tuscan Stone is an almost complete failure no matter whether you try to label it as mystery, thriller or adventure.
For a review of the sequel, see Death in the Dolomites.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.