Italy was not originally on my itinerary for the year, but I wanted to get one of my backlog of Anne Perry mysteries read when we went on vacation last week, before digging into something more serious. The action in the book I started turned out to move back and forth between Britain, a small German state, and Venice, where the exiled former Crown Prince of said German state had been living until his murder on a trip to England. Since the book made me desperately want to visit Venice based on the descriptions of the city in the 1850s, and since it also made me really want to revisit the European history of the period, I decided to count it for the Around the World Challenge after all. Since I’m counting what could be an Italy read for Cuba (one of Italo Calvino’s novels; he was born in Cuba), it seemed ok to count this one for Italy. Here is my review.
As always, I really enjoy reading Anne Perry’s mysteries. I enjoy the characters: surly amnesiac detective William Monk, Crimean War nurse Hester Latterly, distinguished barrister Oliver Rathbone, whose relationships, while often testy, are also intelligent, passionate and loyal. I also enjoy the plot twists, which always have a foundation laid, but which are nonetheless not given away earlier in the novel, making things interesting to the end. I also like the vision of 19th century European society that comes through in each case as it unfolds, whether it is a commentary on medical conditions in London hospitals, as in one book, or the political intrigues surrounding the possible unification of the various German states, as in this one. One measure of historical fiction is whether it makes you want to go read history, and this one definitely did. It also made me want to visit Venice, where a portion of the action takes place.
The basic plot is this: Countess Zorah Rostova seeks the assistance of Rathbone in her defense against a slander accusation by the widow of the exiled former Crown Prince Frederich of Felzburg, a small German state. Zorah has accused Princess Gisela of murdering Frederich, in what was initially simply dismissed as death from internal injuries after a fall from his horse. She has no proof of her accusation, simply an instinctual knowledge that it must be so. As Rathbone investigates, with help from Monk and Hester (who is nursing an paraplegic son of a family from the same German state), it seems that murder has in fact taken place, but that Gisela may be the one person who has an ironclad alibi. Possible suspects and motives are many, related both to personal jealousies and potential political plots related to Frederich’s possible return to Felzburg to lead an independence movement on the eve of potential German unification. During the investigation, Monk travels to Venice, home of the exiled royal family, and to Felzburg, while carrying on a flirtation with a married Baroness from Felzburg, whose husband is a viable suspect. As I said, the solution is not clear until the very end, when critical questions are answered and the investigative team succeeds in bringing about a satisfying resolution to the case.