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This is Michele Giuttari's second novel and, in the opinion of some reviewers, a big improvement on his first attempts as an author, 'A Florentine Death.' Unfortunately I can't comment on this, as 'A Death in Tuscany' is the first I've read of his. What I can say is that this is both one of the best and one of the worst detective stories I've ever read, which makes it quite unique!
The story is quite complicated, but it begins with the death of an adolescent girl to an apparent heroin overdose. While many assume she was an illegal immigrant working as a prostitute and that she brought about her own death, Ferrara, the main character, is suspicious and decides to investigate further.
The subsequent investigation leads him and his police force into a sticky web of murder, drug deals, secrecy and intrigue, as well as a Dan-Brownesque dollop of freemasonry.
What makes this book interesting is that Michele Giuttari worked in the police force himself. According to his short biography, included at the back of the book, he was head of the 'Squadra Mobile' (flying squad) in Florence between 1995 and 2003, where he re-opened the case of the Monster of Florence and 'jailed several key mafia members.' Interestingly enough, it was this self-same Monster of Florence case that inspired the sequel to 'The Silence of the Lambs' by Thomas Harris.
In an interview with a journalist from The Times, Giuttari says that he first started writing as a kind of therapy because of the frightening things that were happening to him at the time- certain people didn't want him investigating the Monster of Florence case and his car tyres were slashed and his brakes cut, among other things. Nowadays he writes instead of doing police work, though his personal experiences lend this book, at least, a very authentic feel, which is both a good and a bad thing.
The advantage of authenticity in a crime novel is that you feel as though you're getting first-hand experience in what it's like to actually work for the police. Giuttari goes into quite minute detail about how the case is handled, and mentions things that most crime writers don't even think about e.g. the outside elements that prevent a chief of police from investigating a crime exactly as they wish- they must take into account at all times what is legally viable and whether they will be backed up by their superiors if they take a certain course of action.
You also get a very strong impression of how a career in the police force affects their personal life, as working on a case occupies so much of their time.
The problem with this authenticity is that it comes at the expense of pace and excitement. The pedantry / precision with which the author details all elements of the case, and his need to accurately portray everything possible, means that there is certainly no room for a good old-fashioned car chase, or for a nail-biting showdown between the good guy and the killer. While this takes 'A Death in Florence' out of the realms of cliché, I did find myself wishing the plot would speed up a bit at times.
It felt as though it plodded towards its conclusion at the rate paint might dry at, and was at times equally exciting. While it may be interesting to investigate a real case in such detail, it's not so interesting to be at the receiving end of a re-telling of it.
It helps that the story is set in Florence, so you pick up some interesting cultural details, such as the way Sicilians differ from Tuscans, and how crime works among mafia members, as well as the fact, which was mentioned several times, that Florence is so hot in August that there is a mass exodus to milder climes for this month. Holiday-makers be warned!
There are certainly autobiographical elements here, not just in Giuttari's personal experiences in relation to the plot, but in the protagonist's character too. Both Giuttari and Ferrara are of Sicilian origin but working in Florence in the same job, they share the same first name and even both wives are German, apparently with overlapping personalities. It started to grate on me slightly that Ferrara's wife, Petra, spoke only in Italian, except to use the same exclamation- 'Ach, du lieber Gott' - whenever anything surprising happened. This is clearly a phrase Giutarri has heard a lot from his own wife, but it would have been nice if he'd spiced things up a bit by adding the odd unique German phrase.
Perhaps this annoyed me because Petra's lack of range in German vocabulary, despite being German, was a reflection a lack of characterisation generally, either for her or any other character.
In fact, the only character who was really believable was Ferrara himself. Even then, the way his character is written in such an autobiographical manner has been described as 'self-congratulatory.' It is true that Ferrara is written as a cool, calm, efficient and highly successful detective who takes the role of leader easily and rarely puts a foot wrong in his interrogations or decision-making generally. It would have been nice to have seen some more humanistic aspects to his personality, rather than seeing someone who is utterly infallible.
Special credit must be given to the translator, Howard Curtis, for his excellent work in rendering the original Italian in fluid, readable prose. There are a couple of awkward moments with mixed-up tenses, but in general it feels very much as if he has managed to stick to the original style intended by the author.
Overall, a decent read, but not very exciting.