Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Party in San Niccolò by Christobel Kent

A murder mystery set in Florence links the expatriate community with the local underworld, subverting the beauty of a dolce vita in sunlit Renaissance gardens by reminding us that criminality and corruption lurk even in the loveliest of places. Gina, taking a much-needed break from the demands of suburban family life, is our guide to this new world, introducing us to an oddly assorted group of characters. There is Gina's old friend Jane, married to Niccolò, a successful English-Italian architect; Jane runs a cookery school and is strongly controlled and perfectionist, her life superficially without flaw. There is generous and kindly Frances, in her seventies and planning her annual birthday party; and Frank, a journalist who has long since abandoned the search for a major scoop. In the first two pages of the book, however, two young women are found dead: Evelina, a Nigerian girl trafficked into prostitution, and Natasha, a beautiful English girl thrown through the plate-glass window of a local antique dealer. Natasha is the best friend of Beatrice, Niccolò's daughter and subject of Jane's unwilling stepmothering, and it is this younger generation that links the rest of the expats to to the local criminals centered around grey-haired Stefano, dealer and pimp.

Kent constructs a complex plot, with blind alleys and several plausible suspects for the murder, and into this weaves a good many observations on the nature of love and marriage, and the proximity of apparently perfect lives to seedy degradation. The plot resolution is reached after deftly built suspense, and in Frank, Gina and Frances Kent creates genuinely appealing and rounded characters, who stop the novel becoming formulaic.

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