Saturday, 16 May 2015

Review: A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari


Recently I read the book A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari, and I thought I'd ramble on a bit about what I thought of it. I picked it up last year in a trip to the UK (you can see it in a haul here), in a discount bookshop where there was a deal on for three books for £5. As I mentioned in the haul post, it was the third book I chose out of the three so it wasn't like I'd been hankering after it for months on end, which is why I surprised myself slightly when I decided to give it a go despite all the other unread books on my shelves.

Apparently this is the second one in the series, but as I understand it each book is more or less a stand-alone case so it was by no means vital to have read the first book in order to follow the second. The genre is crime, specifically Italian crime as you might have guessed from the setting, and the thing about most crime novels is that it's impossible to talk about the plot without giving away major spoilers, so instead I'll focus on the setting, writing and general coherence.

But first here's the blurb to give you an idea of what the initial situation is (I always find the blurb of crime/mystery books strikes just the right balance of basic plot and tantalizing detail):

In the picturesque Tuscan hill town of Scandicci, the body of a girl is discovered. Scantily dressed, she is lying by the edge of the woods. Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, head of Florence's elite Squadra Mobile, takes on the case. Because toxins were discovered close to the girl's body, many assume that she died of a drugs overdose. But Ferrara quickly realises that the truth is darker than that: he believes that the girl was murdered. When he delves deeper, there are many aspects to the case that convince Ferrara that the girl's death is part of a sinister conspiracy - a conspiracy that has its roots in the very foundation of Tuscan society...

What I really loved about A Death in Tuscany is that the author used to be the head of the Florence Police Force, so everything about the book is completely authentic and seems entirely plausible as it's based on real events. The main character, Michele Ferrara, is the Chief Superintendent of the Florence Squadra Mobile (aka police force) and it's obvious there's a certain autobiographical element going on. The author really gets under the skin of the character, which often isn't the case in crime novels when a lot more focus is given to the plot and pacing rather than character development. We definitely see two sides to him: the skilful professional, well-regarded in his field as one of the best, and the more sensitive, even emotional man, who cares a great deal about his missing friend and struggles to balance his work and private life. The chapters switch often between high-energy scenes where a new lead has just been discovered, and more low-key scenes with Ferrara and his wife at home, so the two sides are contrasted throughout.

But what this book (and probably the rest of the series) really has going for it is the setting. The locations just bounced off the page - I felt like I was walking through the streets of a little rural Italian village, surrounded by quaint low houses with flowers in the window boxes, and then I was in a bustling bigger town with the buzz of traffic and horns sounding and the townhouses towering above me, their brightly coloured shutters creating a striking contrast with the cornflower blue sky. Again, it's probably because the locations are based on real life places that they're so vibrant, but it's done really subtly and there aren't many long passages of description. I'm not trying to be ironic when I say I really love books with foreign settings (technically that includes every book I've ever read apart from Helen Grant's Forbidden Spaces trilogy which is set in Belgium), but I especially love them when it's done with authenticity and refinement.

Of course, being translated from Italian does leave a bit of an impact on the writing style. It's clunky in places and reads oddly in others, but I think it adds to the overall charm. You have to bear in mind that the author is not a writer, he is a policeman who turned his hand to writing in his retirement, but I think there's definitely something of a writer in him. While I was a bit lost in the technical and logistical detail at times - I could really have done with a chart showing the hierarchy of characters in the police force, and also a more detailed map - the plot generally did hang together coherently. This is a judgement about a crime novel you can only make at the end for it to have any validity, but I thought the pacing and plotting were handled well. There are three ostensibly separate cases going on in the story (the dead girl, Ferrara's best friend who has disappeared in suspicious circumstances and a drugs trafficking operation), which, predictably, converge in the final few chapters. This is my favourite part of any crime novel, the tipping point at which the apparently insignificant clues and unconnected leads all pull together - I always have a mental image of a bunch of different coloured threads coming together to form a beautiful and intricate plait.

On the whole I really enjoyed A Death in Tuscany, to the point where I have added the other five books in the series to my 'to-read' list on Goodreads. Speaking of which, you can check out my account here and even add me as a friend if you want!

Rating: 8.5/10


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