Murder on sanctified ground is the darkest sin referred to in the title of DV Bishop’s new historical crime novel set in Renaissance Italy. In this case it’s a shocking and brutal stabbing at a secluded convent. However, this is not the only troubling crime in this intriguing and engrossing mystery…
This is the second outing for Cesare Aldo, an officer of the Otto di Guardia e Balia. While at the convent of Santa Maria Magdalena on other business, Aldo hears a scream – a body has been found, the crime is vicious. The nuns are terrified but the victim isn’t one of their number, it’s an interloper, a man. The lure is established but then we track back in time.
March 1537, Cosimo de Medici rules the city but he only replaced Alessandro in January and is yet to establish his authority. Aldo is in the brothel of Madame Robustelli, a good place to remain out of the limelight. As the women of that house gather for the Palm Sunday procession, Aldo makes his way to the Otto.
His boss, Massimo Bindi, is segretario to the courts, a mere clerk, but as the judges are rotated regularly he wields a lot of influence in the city and power comes through his connection to the silk merchant Giralomo Ruggerio. Aldo had proved that two of Ruggerio’s henchmen were responsible for beating a young man to death a few months ago but the merchant was rich enough to avoid the consequences of his crime. Ruggerio has a task he wants done and asks Bindi to ensure Aldo handles it.
Responding to rumours of intruders climbing the walls, Aldo makes his way to the Santa Maria Magdalena convent. The abbess is reluctant to cooperate with his enquires, denying any break-in, but Aldo manages to find a witness on the outside who saw it happen. Still the matter seems to drop.
Then there is Carlo Strocchi, a young man who escaped poverty in the little village of Ponti a Signa by joining the throng in the city. Now as a constable of Florence he is retuning home to his mother with his new bride. While there, he spies Buffon, one of the boys he grew up with. Buffon is wearing a buckle which Strocchi recognises as that of a missing colleague. Cherchi, a bully but also an officer of the Otto, has been missing since January. The case is Aldo’s but, unable to find evidence, he assumed Cherchi fled the city after some trouble. Buffon is the local gravedigger and stole the buckle from a corpse found floating in the river Arno, which runs here from the city. Strocchi is forced to return to the city and report his finding.
Isabella Goudi has been told by her friend that her parents have already arranged her marriage, an alliance that will be good for their family business. When they admit this, Isabella refuses to leave the convent of Santa Maria Magdalena where she is being educated. Her mother tries to enlist Aldo’s help in convincing the wilful girl to see reason. Hence Aldo is drawn back to the convent.
Aldo is a fascinating character, with a secret that could get him executed. Nonetheless, he won’t back down from a fight, even though his enemies would use his personal life against him if they got the opportunity.
Florence under the Medici family is a popular setting for historical crime fiction, with recent examples by Matteo Strukul and Sarah Dunant, for example. The political manoeuvring, legendary skulduggery and courtly intrigue lend themselves well to dark crime fiction. But The Darkest Sin, sequel to City of Vengeance, has a very fresh feel and the characters are intriguing because they are not the rich and powerful. Instead they are the everyday lifeblood of the city.
DV Bishop builds the suspense well, masterfully connecting the disparate strands of the story. The setting is well realised – you’ll feel you could be in the city streets, walking past the brothels or through the Jewish ghetto towards the convent or to the Otto. Details of the life of the city and its people, high and low, are credible and intriguing.
When the murder is introduced, the story of rebellious Isabella, the convent and masters Cherchi and Ruggerio ramps up to become an enthralling tale. Given the quality of the first two novels about Cesar Aldo, this series could become essential reading for fans of the historical novel.
There is plenty more historical crime fiction to explore on our site, including this article by Barry Forshaw which goes era by era through some of the best novels.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars