I’ve done here what I often advise against and have picked up a book that is the most recent in a series. The Dead Season (2012) is the fifth of Kent’s Sandro Cellini stories. I guess it doesn’t really matter; there’s probably nothing you really need to know about what has gone before, though some of the characters are ongoing. Cellini has fairly recently been forced to take early retirement from the Polizia dello Stato in Florence; I think he may still have been in the force in the first book. This may have told the reader more about the work he did as a police officer; what is said here suggests he was a first responder rather than a detective. But he’s a detective now – a private one. And the circumstances of his departure may have shed light on the kind of police officer he was.
This story takes place in Florence in the middle of a heat wave, and the oppressive weather is a constant element in the story. Kent, who has lived in Florence, is probably thinking of the summer of 2011, when Florence experienced its hottest day on record – 42.1°C. Sandro’s friend (from a previous book?) and sort of part-time assistant Giuli brings him a client she has met at the Women’s Centre where she also works. Anna Niescu is eight months pregnant and her fiancée has disappeared. Can Sandro find him? Alongside this we meet Roxana Delfino, who works as a teller in a bank. A regular client doesn’t come in to deposit his takings; Roxana feels ‘a minute, sudden unexpected nudge of panic’. Then the manager of her branch is found dead. We know that there will be a connection between the two strands of the story; the interest of the book is in part how this is worked through. I really like clever plotting, and overall, this is pretty good.
Part of the interest is also in the characters. A review I read of an earlier book suggested that the pace was too slow, but I didn’t find this one dragged. Either it is better paced, or the characters are well-drawn enough in their own right to carry the story. For a start, Sandro makes an interesting private detective. He is uneasy about his new role: ‘he couldn’t go on like this, apologizing for himself, telling himself how low he’d sunk,’ he tells himself. ‘There had to be a way of being a private detective that he could live with.’ He still is friends with his former partner in the police force, which gives him access to rather more information than the ordinary private investigator is likely to have. But he is aware that the interests of his client may not always be the same as those of the police: ‘whose side was he on, exactly?’ he wonders. He is in his sixties – unusual in itself – and needs to be clever rather than brash and pushy – the modus operandi of many younger private eyes. ‘Oh Jesus. I’m too old for this’ he says at one point. But being clever isn’t easy in the heat: ‘there was information in his head, but unfortunately it hadn’t come in the shape of facts arranged in useful, neat columns: more like a swarm of wasps, circling and scattering, forming and reforming.’ He isn’t into high tech stuff: ‘there’s no substitute for getting out there and talking to people’. He operates partly on an assessment of people that is almost instinctual, but are instincts sometimes ‘the wrong thing to pursue’? He does so, nevertheless; his ‘wobbly, imprecise … lopsided building of a theory’ about the case is constructed on instinct. This is because at heart, he is on the side of ‘the defeated, the not quite competent, the stupidly soft-hearted’. You can’t not like him.
There are of course a range of other characters, most of whom are also well drawn. Kent is good on personal relationships and the tensions within them. Relationships between parents and children – or substitute children – are important, as is the ability to have them; pregnancy is a sub-theme in the story. Not all characters can be fully fleshed out, because someone has to be the hidden villain, but Kent does quite a good job of keeping the reader guessing.
There is nothing particularly outstanding about this book, but I enjoyed it more than many crime stories. I think this is partly because I like the way Kent writes. It’s hard to say what beyond a general competence is good about her writing style, but for me, she rarely puts a foot wrong. On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly moved – frightened, elated or thrilled – by it, so there’s probably an element of safety or comfort in reading it. Sandro is a safe and comfortable hero.
I can’t help noticing that there are quite a lot of Italian detectives – mostly police – around at the moment. As well as Sandro Cellini, the is Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti in Venice, the late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, who seems to get posted all over Italy, the late Magdalen Nabb’s Marshal Guarnaccia, who spends at least some time in Florence, and Timothy Williams’s Commissario Piero Trotti, who operates in an unnamed city in the north of Italy. There are no doubt many Italian crime writers as well. But I also can’t help wondering if somewhere in Italy there is a writer beavering away on a series in English about a detective in Halifax or Huddersfield.
There is remarkably little on the internet about Christobel Kent, but here is an interesting blog she wrote about Florence.