A kind friend recently gave me Michele Giuttari’s A Florentine Death, which he thoroughly recommended, though this opinion is caveated by the fact that he read it in the original (his Italian is native), and that he loves Florence. I was intrigued, because it’s written by a retired senior Florentine policeman, and it opened promisingly well. Well, it turns out that it’s not really a detective story, more a thriller with strong political strands and a fair amount of mild sexual frisson and serial horror – and throw in a vague Mafia connection and a bit of Catholic church politics, and you have a heady if slightly predictable mix for the Italian murder-thriller. There are two main strands, which begin separately, and only come together late in the book, though the alert reader (that means you!) will soon realise roughly how they will mesh.
First, there is a series of murders being investigated by “il gatto” (the cat), his subordinates' name for the near legendary chief of the murder squad, Michele Ferrara. There is little real evidence, and as success eludes him, Ferrara becomes the focus of administrative and political pressure; it is fascinating – this is Italy, after all – that he solves one of his pressing political problems by inviting her out to a three hour lunch, in the middle of a serial murder crisis! By chance, the murderer lunches there too, though he never knows that. The other strand is the relationship between an American journalist and an Italian girl struggling free of an adolescent lesbian relationship, seeking who knows what. Certainly, she found was much more than she bargained for. There is a fair amount of irrelevant atmosphere which seems to me to have put in by rote – but that may be the effect of translation – and quite a lot of unattractive sexual behaviour - but still a lot of the excitement of the chase. In the end, they get a lucky break, and after a couple of false starts, everything builds to a thrilling – if slightly unlikely -conclusion in a monastery inhabited by a silent order. The explanation of why this series of otherwise unconnected men have died is unconvincing, not in the sense that the events that create an overpowering need for revenge do not come up to scratch, but in the sense that the police struggled for months to find a connection between the several victims, and failed – and all the time, it was that they went to school together!
I was a bit disappointed, and to mask this, I turned to a much better Italian thriller, The Etruscan Net by Michael Gilbert, set in the same city. This is slightly older fashioned, set perhaps three decades earlier, but just as dependent on the political context of both the police and the judiciary. There are many splendid characters, including the hero himself, Robert Broke, and various members of the retired English community in Florence. But most impressive, perhaps, are the Italian politicos and the lawyer - Avvocato Riccasoli - who defends Broke with tenacity and courage in the face of a Mafia-political fix. This is gripping, almost believable, and well written – I certainly recommend the English account of Florentine death over the Italian one!
Finally, to keep a slight Italian theme going, I recently read Michael Innes’ Appleby’s Other Story, set in England, with a Spanish painting at its heart (a Velasquez, whose work also features significantly in A Florentine Death), but the resolution of which depends in a surprising fashion on the evidence of the Italian maids. I won’t spoil the plot, except to tell you that this is a delightful read, elegant and sophisticated murder, and that if you remember that ‘story’ could have been spelled ‘storey’, you might beat the great Appleby to the solution!