Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Florentine Death, by Michele Giuttari

Abacus, 2011
originally published as Scarabeo, 2005
[first English edition - 2007]
translated by Howard Curtis
357 pp
(trade paper ed.)

A Florentine Death is the first novel in Michele Giuttari's crime-fiction series featuring Michele Ferrara, the head of the Squadra Mobile in Florence.   His later works in the series are A Death in Tuscany (2008), The Death of a Mafia Don (2009),  A Death in Calabria (2010), and this year's The Black Rose of Florence.  While Giuttari's name may not be well known outside of his books, in 2001, Giuttari and prosecutor Giuliano Mignini (known for his handling [or mishandling] of the Amanda Knox case in 2007)  reopened Italy's "Monster of Florence" case, based on their belief that "the  murders were committed not by a sole killer but by members of a Satanic sect who used body parts from the killings as ritual offerings." Later, Douglas Preston and his co-author, Italian journalist Mario Spezi would take issue with the ideas raised by Giuttari and Mignini in their well-known work The Monster of Florence, leading to Spezi's arrest and an accusation against Preston for being an accessory to the murders. In A Florentine Death, it is obvious that Giuttari draws on his personal experiences -- the main character, Michele Ferrara, is also involved with the Monster of Florence case.

In this novel, the focus is on the hunt for a serial killer, someone who not only murders his victims but also savagely mutilates them as well.  Ferrara already has a number of crimes on his hands, but this one becomes personal as he begins to receive strange, anonymous letters that seem to imply that Ferrara is on the killer's list as well.  The murderer also indicates that Ferrara will have to wait his turn until the end of the killing spree.  Trying to find a connection between the victims eludes police, and a key witness who may hold all of the answers seems to have gone missing.  As the investigation proceeds slowly and the public is clamoring for the police to solve these gruesome cases,  a second storyline develops, in which a young grad student meets an American journalist who threatens to upset her relationship with her lover. 

The best part of this mystery comes barreling at the reader toward the end when the link is finally revealed and things start to make sense, and the underlying motive turns out to be completely credible.   However, in all honesty, I can't say that this book really did it for me as a whole.  The story is just flat, number one, never really building up to much suspense as I waited for something to sink my teeth into that would carry me through to the end.  The anti-gay focus bothered me, but not nearly as much as the unrealistic dialogue that occurs throughout the story.  Take the rape scene in the middle of the novel, for example.  The young grad student, Valentina, is in bed with her journalist boyfriend who forcibly sodomizes her after she screams for him to stop (and the author doesn't flinch in describing the pain she undergoes).  While I've read multiple books where someone is victimized like this, here, after it's all over:

"When he came back from the bathroom, he was as white as a corpse.

He did not dare lie down next to her. He sat down on the bed, shamefaced.

Valentina was stilll crying. She didn't dare move, she was afraid it would hurt if she did.

'I ... I don't know what came over me. I swear to you. It was like...I don't know! I'm a monster, Valentina, a monster! How could I?'

She turned slowly towards him. Without saying a word, she gestured to him to lie down.

She placed a hand on his chest. 'It's possible,' she murmured, 'that I still love you.' "

A few sentences later,  the author even has her thinking that she's proud of "having given him an erection."  I mean, seriously? Really? 

The mystery, rather than being "gripping" and "cleverly plotted" as noted in the back-cover blurb, was actually a bit clunky.   Not too far into the book, it becomes obvious as to the "who," and the investigation meandered and became jumbled until the last few pages provided some order and cohesion.  As a seasoned mystery/crime-fiction reader, waiting until the end for things to happen without periodic hooks in interest  just doesn't do it for me.  The sense of place is okay, perhaps not as well developed as I'd hoped, the characters are sort of one-dimensional, and the sex scenes seem to be there to ensure a wider range of readership rather than adding anything to the storyline.  On a more personal level, I give the author kudos for his mention of The Necronomicon at the beginning of the novel, due to my extreme affection for all things HP Lovecraft.

I'd say give it a try but beware. It does have its fans -- the novel has garnered some 4-star ratings at Amazon, Goodreads and LibraryThing, so there are people who do think highly of this book.  Since Giuttari's Black Rose of Florence is on my tbr list for this year's International Dagger, and since I have this compulsion to read an entire series to get to the newest book, I will be reading the rest of the Ferrara novels; my understanding is that the second installment is a bit better.  Hopefully the problems I discovered in A Florentine Death will be chalked up to first novel issues; I have more of Giuttari's books sitting here waiting to be read.

A much more positive review than mine can be found at the bookblog Hush Darling, I'm Reading if you are interested.

1 comment:

  1. Omigod, I could never read this book, given the author's role in promoting the "Satanic cult" culprits in the "Monster of Florence" case, and that outrageous rape scenario.

    I think that some men do NOT understand what sexual assaults do to women, how women feel -- and that acts of violence do not engender loving feelings at all, but rather the polar opposites.

    No woman would write a scene like that, I venture.

    There seems to be quite a bit of regression in crime fiction in terms of sexual assault issues these days. It's bizarre.


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