Christobel Kent’s latest offering in her Sandro Cellini series, The Dead Season, takes us to Florence during August with its unrelenting stifling heat. The novel is set among those left behind when the more affluent head to the coast for their summer holidays.
Those familiar with other crime writers whose stories are based in Italy such as Dibden, Camilleri, Leon, Nabb, Pears and Hewson, will find Kent’s story telling is at least equal to them if not, which is my view, on a higher plane. The Dead Season establishes her as a more complete and accomplished crime writer and a leader in her genre.
This is partly because of her main character Sandro Cellini, an enigmatic ex-cop turned private detective nearing retirement age, and partly by the way Kent gets inside the minds of the other main characters. In some ways her writing reminds me of the early Le Carre stories
Kent makes us sympathetic to her characters’ plight, made worse by the heat and the overall emptiness of the city, drained of those who in other times of the year help make their lives bearable. As well, there is the ever present influence of migrants whether from eastern Europe or Africa who are now a part of the lives of ordinary Italians, competing with them for jobs and resources.
However, the real strength of this crime novel is the cast of well drawn women characters who provide the story’s momentum. Other than Sandro the male characters are by comparison minor players despite the mayhem and distress that several of them cause, but maybe this is the Italian way!
The women who carry the story’s load include Sandro’s wife, the stylish hard-working Luisa, who is his main sounding board and works in a high fashion retail outlet exposing her to the city’s elite and wealthy tourists.
Roxana Delfino, another finely drawn character, is a teller in a local branch of a small and failing provincial bank who is single and in her early thirties. Her intelligence and concern for both her boss who has disappeared, and her customers, leads her down a deadly path.
Complementing them are a number of elderly women, including Roxana’s mother Violetta who worries about slipping into dementia and her daughter being unmarried, and Serafina Capponi the childless, wealthy owner of a run down hotel, who gives sanctuary to Anna, a young pregnant employee whose fiancé, a gypsy illegal immigrant, has disappeared.
His disappearance leads to Sandro taking on Anna as a client at the instigation of another of the women characters, Sandro and Luisa’s “adopted daughter” Giuli who they rescued from a life of drugs, prostitution and crime. Giuli ends up becoming the smart “deputy” to Sandro’s “sheriff” when she is not working at the local women’s refuge..
Encouraged by both Giuli and Luisa, Sandro embarks on an investigation that rapidly becomes entangled with the murders of the manager of Roxana’s bank and that of a dubious real estate agent within days of each other.
Underpinning the authenticity of these women characters is the fact that they have lived in Florence all their lives and have always known, or been aware of each other.
Christobel Kent has created an imaginative crime novel which entertains while telling an interesting story through the lens of the shabby and challenging lives of that many Italians lead today.
It is hard to put down and at the end you feel sad about losing contact with the lives of an interesting and believable group of characters.
Review by Guest Blogger Terry Purcell