I happened upon Death in August by Marco Vichi as I was browsing about for an Indie Thursday purchase. I couldn’t resist the cover, a vintage Florence streetscape with the famed Palazzo Vecchio clock tower in the distance, all diffused by a red-orange sunset. The cover, and the title, seemed perfect to me, as it was of those sultry days in late August.
This is the first of several mysteries based in Florence, Italy, featuring Inspector Bordelli, and I’m psyched (as always) to have discovered a great new detective series. I’d like to compare the inspector to Hercule Poirot, but Bordelli is not at all fastidious or dignified. He actually reminded me more of an Italian Columbo: rumpled, ruminative, and tenacious. Although the victim looked to have died in an asthma attack, Bordelli “couldn’t get the image of the woman’s corpse out of his mind. Murder, he thought. Leaning his back against the wall, he breathed deeply and looked up at the sky, seeking the moonlight behind the thick clouds.”
Like Columbo, Bordelli circles around a few key suspects, playing a sort of cat-and-mouse game as he closes the trap around the guilty party. This is a slow-burning potboiler, and Vichi keeps the thread of suspense going. But, there are no formulaic cliffhangers or gratuitous ‘evil-twin’ plot surprises—phew.
The book also reminded me of P.D. James‘s works, in that it is well written and heavy on atmosphere. “The sky had opened and the moon was visible. [Bordelli] stopped in front of the gate and looked at the villa from a distance, fascinated by the decay wrought by time. It pleased him to see that things, and not only people, suffered the wear and tear of age.”
Vichi gives us wonderful glimpses of life in Florence, as Bordelli attends a funeral in the famed Santa Croce, lunches at his special table in a trattoria’s kitchen, and drives about the hilly, circuitous streets. “Reaching the Lungarno, he crossed the Ponte alle Grazie and turned, as always to look up at the church of San Miniato al Monte, his favourite. Its white façade always had the same effect, whether from up close or far away.”
Set in the 1963, the book captures a time when Florence was quiet and deserted in August, and those who remained lay awake swatting mosquitoes amid the fumes of zampironi coils. “It was almost nine, always the most melancholy time of the day for Bordelli. Down on the street, somebody called after his dog. The swallows were gobbling up insects, flying low and screeching between the buildings.”
Also, as it’s the 1960s, Bordelli has vivid and troubling memories of his time fighting the Nazis in World War II, some of which are shared in flashbacks. These memories are fueled by the real-life experiences of the author’s father who regaled him with vivid accounts from when Vichi was a little boy. In fact the Inspector’s eager and dogged protégé, Gavino Piras, turns out to be the son of one of his comrades-in-arms. Upon first meeting him, Bordelli “felt at once very sad and very pleased.”
From Sicily, Piras is one of the many compelling characters we meet in Death in August. However, there aren’t any developed women characters. They are either decorous, aged signoras or lusty gals whom Bordelli oogles. There are a few awkward, and pretty icky, moments. Inside joke, the inspector’s name is translated as ‘Commissioner Brothels’ on the author’s website.
Notwithstanding, I highly recommend this read. I’m eager to delve into book two, Death and the Olive Grove. I know there are UK paperback editions out there. But, I just loved the look and feel of the Pegasus Crime hardcover (the U.S. debut) so I hope it won’t be long before they publish the next one.