Death in August is a book with an identity crisis: it is a psychological novel dressed up as a police procedural but marketed as a cozy mystery novel. The original Italian books, less bound by genre, have dark covers reflecting the dark themes in the series. The English translations offered as Kindle editions sport cozy mystery watercolor covers with a nostalgic tint that completely misrepresent the books' contents.
The series is set in the past, in the 1960s to be precise, and it is set there for a reason: to allow Italians to laugh, sometimes wryly, at their former selves, with the benefit of hindsight from the perspective of the world today looking back on a seemingly ancient time. So much social, political and economic change has occurred since the 1960s that looking back on those years really does feel like we are observing an ancient culture.
Book Two in the Inspector Bordelli Mystery Series
In Death in August, we get to observe how women were non-existent in the workplace, men smoked like chimneys, one could drink alcohol at work, safely married women could flaunt themselves at men for self-validation or to make their husband jealous and attentive, men could ogle women as if they were going to attack them without anyone thinking it odd, drunks were left to wander neighborhoods until they died of the disease, DDT was used in most every home to kill mosquitoes, veterans of wars suffered their PTSDs without any help and with people just looking the other way when they acted odd, and so on and so on...
The scene that is likely misunderstood the most by English-speaking readers is one in which an old bomb-maker for the Italian WWII Resistance laments that young people in Italy lack the courage to fight with violence, if necessary, for the country and for their ideals. Non-Italians might see the scene as a lament by a retired soldier for the lazy, luxury-loving youth he sees around him in post-war Italy. But for the Italian reader, the scene would produce a wry laugh, because they know that within a decade or so, young Italians would be planting bombs, killing people, kidnapping people and posting manifestos all over Italy, calling themselves the Red Brigades terror group, and acting against all they see as bad in their country.
Book Three in the Inspector Bordelli Mystery Series
Much is lost in the translation, although the translator provides some footnotes collected at the back of the text to explain some cultural reference. I was not happy with the translation. There were errors in punctuation, paragraphing, and phrasing. There were a handful of typos. And the translator seemed oblivious of the subjunctive form in English.
The protagonist of the series is a police inspector named Bordelli. We learn that he was a sensitive, dreamy boy who was repeatedly sexually abused when he was eight years old, by a household maid. The scenes are excruciating to read, and I am amazed that I see no mention of these scenes in any reviews, nor any mention of them in the book's description.
Unlike the oblivious writer of the Stephanie Plum novels, who put a similar abuse scene in her first book in her series, the author of the Inspector Bordelli Mystery Series understands the long-term effect this kind of abuse can have on a person, and he links it directly to his protagonist's character.
Book Four in the Inspector Bordelli Mystery Series in its cozy-covered form
So, Bordelli is often self-destructive, destructive of his emotional attachments to women, infantile-like and passive in his more prolonged relationship with a woman who is a former prostitute who pampers him no doubt because she has had her fill of macho men. Bordelli is fifty-three, unmarried, lonely, unhappy with the state of Italy, scared by the war and his PTSD and by the childhood abuse he suffered.
Bordelli is haunted by his time in the Italian Resistance during the Italian Civil War that was low-level at the beginning of WWII, and very hot following Italy's surrender to the Allies. He suffers chronic insomnia and flashbacks. His colleagues accept all this with good grace, but also with deep concern for the man's health. Bordelli is a haunted, disturbed man who will probably never find much peace.
The colleagues and assorted group of walking-wounded friends of Bordelli's know that the man may be damaged goods, but he is good at police work. He also has a very moral perspective on the law that allows him to bend it when justice would be better served that way. Here is Bordelli telling his boss why he lets some poor criminals walk, now and then:
"Let me tell you something, Dr. Inzipone. When I returned from the war, I hoped I had done my small part to liberate Italy from the shit we were in; but now all I see is mountains of shit, everywhere..."...Inzipone eyed him, clenching his teeth. He knew there was little he could do about Bordelli's methods, because he was, after all, an excellent inspector, he was loved by the entire department, and everybody knew that, in the end, he was right, there was too much poverty about.
I enjoyed the author's prose style. The narration is third-person limited, so we get to see into Bordelli's mind, memories, fleeting thoughts, daydreams and nightmares. Here are some examples:
It pleased him to see that things, and not only people, suffered the wear and tear of age.The young were all fleeing the countryside to work in the city. Nobody seemed to want to live any more between the soil and the cow pats.
Nominally, the book is a police procedural, with the usual introduction of a case, the forensic details, the victims, the suspects, the investigations, etc. But these are just things to give some structure to a novel that is really about the man, Bordelli, and his demons. The murder case is not very challenging or mysterious. We spend most of our time just hanging out with Bordelli and his odd group of male friends, and roaming the 1960s.
There are long sections in the book about the war and Bordelli's war experiences. There are just as many parts of the book about meals and especially one, long, elaborate dinner-party that Bordelli throws for his buddies, that is little more than a long drinking bout interspersed by some food.
Like Andrea Camillieri's books featuring police commissioner Montalbano (Camillieri writes an endorsement of the series on the cover of the book), the universe in Death in August is richly male, with women appearing only as disruptions to the delicately balanced workings of male-ville. The women are described from the outside only, since the insides are a complete mystery to the men.
About the book's identity crisis... I enjoyed the book for the psychological novel that it was; it was meaty, intelligent, honest, and wryly funny. For a police procedural, it was lacking in suspense and mystery. And it is in no way, shape, or form a cozy murder mystery. Know what you are buying if you choose to buy this book! I hope this review helps.
These are the books in the Inspector Bordelli Mystery Series so far:
- Death in August (set in summer 1963)
- Death and the Olive Grove (set in April 1964)
- Death in Sardinia (set in December 1965)
- Death in the Tuscan Hills (set in 1967)
From Death in August's description:
A new crime series full of Italian flavor – the first novel in the Inspector Bordelli series, set in 1960s Florence.
Florence, summer 1963. Inspector Bordelli is one of the few detectives left in the deserted city. He spends his days on routine work and his nights tormented by the heat and mosquitoes. With the help of his young protégé, the victim’s eccentric brother, and a semi-retired petty thief, the inspector begins a murder investigation. Each suspect has a solid alibi, but there is something that doesn’t quite add up...
Here are direct links at Amazon.com to Marco Vichi's Inspector Bordelli books:
Please 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.