“Villa Triste” by Lucretia Grindle begins in present day Florence, Italy with the brutal murder of a recluse recently honored as a hero working for the resistance during the Nazi occupation of World War II. To solve the mystery, detective Alessondro Pallioti must unearth details from the past, most of which are found in a diary of a young woman found in the dead man’s possession. The diary recounts the life and times of Caterina Cammaccio and her sister Isabella as they helped the resistance in 1943.
Throughout the book we are toggled between the first person narrative of the diary of 1943 and the present day narration following the progress of detective Pallioti. Both story lines are captivating and keep the reader engaged and curious as to the outcome – a real page turner which makes this 645-page book a surprisingly fast read.
For anyone who has visited Florence, the backdrop is richly memorable and the reader is left with sorrow due to the bombing losses of medieval buildings and historic bridges over the river Arno (even one designed by Michelangelo), but relief and gratitude for all that was preserved. Italy had a unique vantage point during World War II which was enlightening to me. The story begins with the Armistice with the Allies and the ousting of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The celebration was short lived as German forces moved in to fill the vacuum and occupied the country until nearly the end of the war. The diary reports how the partisans risked everything to radio transmit information to Allied forces and escort Jewish refugees through the mountains to safety. Through the characters we explore the themes of courage, sacrifice, trust and loyalty.
Grindle has done a fine job of creating realistic characters and events, although a couple of journal entries (by their very nature always written in the present) were erroneously written with the advantage of hindsight: “this would be the last time I saw him” and “this would be my last entry until October”. The ending, satisfying in most respects, pushes the credulity envelope by its utter tidiness.
I highly recommend this engrossing story of family, love, loss, and bravery all wrapped in a murder mystery with a history lesson thrown in for good measure.
Reviewed by Bryan Uecker