VILLA TRISTE


By Lucretia Grindle

Grand Central Publishing, January 2013 ($14.99)

ISBN-13: 978-1-4555-0537-1

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

September, 1943, Florence, Italy. Caterina Cammaccio is preparing for her wedding when she and her sister Isabella hear that the Italian government has signed an armistice with the Allies. Instead of being good news, it brings fear to the Italians. Caterina's brother is in the Army, her husband-to-be is a medical officer with the Navy, and their whereabouts is unknown. Soon, the Nazis are marching in, and the Fascists are back in control. Life for the Cammaccio family, and for all Italians, has changed drastically and tragically.

Caterina had been working as a nurse while waiting to become a married woman, but now her skills are needed for the duration. Even as the Italians are praying for the Allies to liberate them, Allied bombs are dropping on their cities, and the pilots can't seem to differentiate between railroads and childrens' hospitals. Isabella finds her strength and courage as a fighter in the resistance, and others in the family also enter the fray, carrying on even as the danger grows. Caterina is at first reluctant to take the risk, but Isabella pushes her until she agrees. There is no going back, and she and her loved ones do their part until the war is over. Some survive; some do not.

Florence, 2005. The surviving partisans are awarded a special medal for their wartime service and given a state dinner and extensive media coverage. Several months later, one of the elderly patriots is found brutally murdered execution-style. Everyone is horrified at such a horrendous crime, and talk of neo-Nazis starts up. Special Investigator Alessandro Pallioti is not so sure, suspecting something more sinister is at play. When another victim is killed in the same manner, fear that a serial killer is at work builds.

While investigating the first crime scene, Pallioti finds a small leather-bound diary. Its owner was Caterina Cammaccio, and the entries were written in 1943-1944. He should have filed it with the rest of the evidence, but something made him hang on to it. As he slowly reads it, Caterina's world comes to life again, and he discovers a connection with his murder case.

Pallioti is a sharp, smart detective, and his team is skilled and well-trained. He is a fully realized character, flawed yet heroic. His relationship with his younger sister is poignant and sweet. The plot is skillfully drawn out, the intertwining of the past and present seamless. The ending is both triumphant and heart-breaking. Although the modern-day mystery is enjoyable, I found the war years, as seen through Caterina's eyes and voice, compelling, entrancing, touching, spell-binding, and completely believable. This book should resonate with a wide range of readers. It is beautifully written, and deserves to win awards. Highly recommended for fans of excellent mysteries, World War II enthusiasts, and everyone else.

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