Thursday, January 23, 2014

Death in a Serene City by Edward Skelopwich

Edward Sklepowich's detective is amateur sleuth and longtime Venice resident Urbino MacIntyre.  MacIntyre is an ex-pat from the States and an author of biographies of Italophiles who have lived in Venice.  His partners in sleuthing are an Italian Countess and Venice, both beautiful and glorious.  There are 9 books in the series.

Here is the last line of the book:
Urbino laughed.  The Contessa, as usual when it came to things Venetian, was probably right.
The book description for Death in a Serene City, published in 1990, reads:
Death in a Serene City is a wonderfully sophisticated and witty murder mystery set in Venice, with its canals, exotic architecture, spectacular art, and echoes of Ruskin, Diaghilev, Sargent and Henry James.  With a cast of characters that includes mast makers, glassblowers, priests and nuns, aristocrats, washerwomen, celebrated novelists, and hunchbacks, here is a debut that will surely establish its author, Edward Sklepowich, as one of the brightest new talents among suspense novelist.

"It all begins when scandal rocks the city of Venice:  the 1,100-year-old body of little Santa Teodora is stolen from the parish church of San Gabriele and a devout washerwoman is found murdered at the foot of the smashed crystal reliquary....

Mr. Sklepowich is a solid writer who leaves no loose ends, and who writes in the style of the classic mystery writers.  His books are not police procedurals, but are the classic three act mysteries, with the murder happening at the end of Act I, after we've met all the potential suspects.  Lengthy ruminations on facts uncovered fill Act II.  And the killer is revealed at the end of Act III, followed by an Epilogue that wraps up all the loose ends.

The author peppers his books with literary and historical references that will stimulate readers, who have similar interests, to rush to references and to read books, to flesh out the backdrop of the mystery series stories.  The extra research is not necessary to enjoy the stories, but it just an extra level of intellectual entertainment provided by the erudite author.

The books in the series are:
  1. Death in a Serene City
  2. Farewell to the Flesh
  3. Liquid Desires
  4. Black Bridge
  5. Death in the Palazzo
  6. Deadly to the Sight
  7. The Last Gondola
  8. Frail Barrier
  9. The Veils of Venice

I have read all but the last book in the series.  I must say, I enjoyed the first 7 books more than number 8 and 9.

The author was inspired by the iconic American novelist Henry James.  Jamesian motifs, allusions and direct references dot all the books in the series.  Mr. Sklepowich's first proposal for the series was to have Henry James as the sleuth.  I imagine the Contessa character might have been originally intended as Mrs. Arthur (Katherine) Bronson, a famous ex-pat society hostess and philanthropist who lived in Venice for twenty years, had a Grand Canal villa, and who was a close, platonic friend of Henry James.
Mr. Sklepowich departs from the Henry James model during the course of the Urbino MacIntyre series.  But there are plenty of Jamesian references to Urbino as a "monk" who retreats to his Venetian palace as if it were a "cell", and to Urbino's good manners, kindness, modesty, need for privacy and personal freedom, and his reticence about his sexual life, all reminiscent of Henry James.

Urbino's sexuality is downplayed and never spoken of directly.  Only subtle allusions are made to or about it.  In fact, Urbino is said to approve of lies, presumably about private things such as sexuality, in this imperfect world of ours, because the truth might cause too much damage to the innocent.  I found that it added an extra, interesting level to the books.

This is my favorite mystery series set in Venice.  I enjoyed the classic-traditional cozy style, the quality writing, the depth of character, and that the author left much to the reader to interpret, rather than spelling everything out in the modern fashion.  Classic is the word that comes to mind for the Urbino MacIntyre series.

The books have been re-released as Kindle e-books available via  Here are all the books in the series at Amazon:

You will find many second-hand hardcopies.  I suggest the on-line, second-hand bookstore Better World Books, which offers free delivery worldwide.

Direct Link to Edward Skleopwich's books at BWB

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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