Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Florentine Death by Michele Guittari

A Florentine Death is the first book in the Michele Ferrara Police Procedural Series, a set in Florence, Italy.  The protagonist, Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, is the head of Florence's Squadra Mobile, a serious-crime investigative unit.  The series is translated from the original Italian into British English (at least, my copy of the book was in British English).

Michele Ferrara is a lucky man:  he has an apartment on the River Arno with a garden terrace overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge that crosses the river that cuts Florence in half.  I'm assuming that this is a case of artistic license, and not a hint that Ferrara is on the take.  Florence is an expensive city!  That apartment would have cost a fortune!

If you are a Florence fan, and who isn't, you will enjoy the specific streets and buildings that are mentioned throughout A Florentine Death.  There is a very strong sense of place in the book.  Here is the author on Florence:
A strange city, Florence, he reflected.  One of the most beautiful, most beloved cities in the world, steeped in history and full of art treasures, it offers itself to visitors like a generous courtesan.  But if on the one hand it flaunts itself, on the other it shuts itself up behind the heavy doors of its palatial houses, jealously guarding a privacy that has to remain inviolable, and leaving us to wonder what is concealed within those walls, what memories of past plots and betrayals.

Depictions of the Italian character are exceptionally strong in the book since it is written by an Italian about Italians, and originally written for an Italian audience.  My favorite "Italian" touch is when a heated police interrogation is interrupted for an espresso break at the request of the man being interrogated, and with the gratitude of the policemen who admit they need an espresso, too. 

Here is a comment about a young police driver:
He couldn't have been more than twenty, was new to the job and unaware that, in a situation like this, such behaviour was, unfortunately, only to be expected.  By way of compensation, he drove as if he were at the wheel of a Ferrari at Monza.  Like all drivers, he insisted on showing off his skills.

The details about the police investigations are accurate, thanks to the author being a former head of Florence's Squadra Mobile.  Michele Guittari is a controversial figure, so I will leave that part of his life alone, and concentrate on his second life as a novelist.  The author has said that Ferrara is an idealized version of himself.

We expertly meet Ferrara in the first few pages of the novel, and then we move on to meet his wife (German, like in the TV series La Piovra), best friend (an Italian Casanova like in the Montalbano series), and police team members (all male like most Italian police teams).  We learn about Ferrara's past, too, which turns out to be very important to the story.  Ferrara is a realist, a workaholic, a very professional and competent leader, and he is perceptive about people.

The writing style is very traditional, with separate strands following the killer and the police, until the moment the two strands combine near the end of the book.  Be forewarned that some readers might not enjoy the slow style of this classic police procedural.

The story is divided into three parts:
  1. A Long Strange Day in Florence, October 1, 1999
  2. A Series of Murders, Florence [Dec.] 1999-2000 [3/4 of the book]
  3. The Hunt

The narration is in the third-person-limited, usually from Ferrara's mindset.  However, like the English author David Hewson, whose style I think is similar to Guittari's, we are put into the mind of the very sick killer, too.  We are also treated to sex scenes, usually disturbing sex scenes, also similar to David Hewson's books.

Sometimes I found the time jumps a bit confusing because they were not always clearly indicated either by a time indication, which the author likes to use since his character is rather obsessed with time, nor with a line space, which is usually the way to indicate a time jump.  Not all the time jumps are linear; sometimes the jumps go back in time.

There are lovely parts of A Florentine Death that let us get into the head of a real policeman:
"There's never time to concentrate on one thing, there's always something else to do.  But we don't give up.  Unsolved cases should never be closed.  They should always stay with you, somewhere at the back of your mind.  Sometimes a clue turns up out of nowhere after months or years, and you'd  better be ready to grab it when it does.  And anyway, the city is sorry he died, even if it doesn't know it.  It's important to remember that deep down, Florence is scared.  Because whatever you think of the case, there's still a killer at large."
The most realistic aspect of A Florentine Death, for me, was the spread out time-frame of the story.  The policemen are busy with other cases, so their attention is strained.  Lots of people have to do very specialized jobs to collect the evidence at the crime scene.  Forensic examinations take time, so the detectives have to be patient.  The close work with judges (investigating magistrates) takes time and patience, since their schedules are overloaded, too.

Negatives about A Florentine Death are not really negative, but observations about things I did not particularly enjoy.  First, I felt that the story was very male dominated, with the female characters shallowly or stereotypically drawn and suffocated in a macho society.  Second, the plot centers around homosexuality, which in Italian society seems quite behind-the-times compared to my understanding and upbringing.

These are the books in the Michele Ferrara Police Procedural Series published in English:
  1. A Florentine Death
  2. A Death in Tuscany (I've read this one, too, and found the pedophilia content repulsive.)
  3. The Death of a Mafia Don
  4. The Black Rose of Florence
  5. A Death in Calabria
  6. The Dark Heart of Florence

From the book's description:
Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara knows that the beautiful surface of his adopted city, Florence, hides dark undercurrents.  When called in to investigate a series of brutal and apparently random murders, his intuition is confirmed.  Distrusted by his superiors and pilloried by the media, Ferrara finds time running out as the questions pile up.

Is there a connection between the murders and the threatening letters he has received?  Are his old enemies, the Calabrian Mafia, involved?  And what part is played by a beautiful young woman facing a heart-rending decision, a priest troubled by a secret from his past, and an American journalist fascinated by the darker side of life?

Ferrara confronts the murky underbelly of Florence in an investigation that will put not only his career but also his life on the line.

Here is a two minute video postcard of Florence, in case you've never been there, and wish to see the setting of the book, A Florentine Death:

Here are direct links to A Florentine Death at

Here are direct links to all the books in the series to-date at

Visit the author's website.  

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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