The book opens in 1955 with the description of the brutal murder of a still good-looking, middle-aged woman, details of which, using italics, are related to the reader by the actual murderer,
The story then backpedals to Tuscany, in 1943, to the Villa Chimera, the home of the Marchese and Marchesa, Antonio and Beatrice Rosati, Cristina, their daughter, and their daughter-in-law, Francesca, and her children, Alessia and Massimo. The Rosati sons are both in the Italian army. One, Vittore, works in a museum and the other, Francesca’s husband, Marco, is on the front someplace in Italy. Many of the Italians are forced to alternately support the Italian Army or the German Army, depending on the fortunes of war, since Italy was originally aligned with Germany. Although some are not sympathizers with much of the policies of either Mussolini or Hitler, they are still caught, very much in the middle, when their villages or their villas attract the eye and attention of some Italians or Germans in the hierarchy of the military or the government.
When the story returns to 1955, we learn that it is Francesca who has been brutally murdered, and we are introduced to Serafina, a former partisan fighter, who had been severely injured, near death, in 1944, at the end of the war, and who is now the only female homicide detective in the police department. She is working on this murder case with Paolo, her partner. For Serafina, the investigation opens the wounds of the past, when she was a young teen, without family, fighting for her life and her freedom, together with the partisans. She has no real memory of how she was so gravely injured, but since she was in the forest near the Rosati property, she wonders if there could be a connection there, to her past.
As she interviews Cristina, we learn that she was visiting her sister-in-law for lunch in Florence, where she once conducted a rather amorous and illicit affair with a German soldier, Friedrich, who worked with her brother in the museum in Florence. This led to a rather colorful and malicious reputation for herself and her family. Currently, however, she resides in Rome with the Marchesa. The fictional villa, in Tuscany, where the family once lived and housed the Germans, is no longer really habitable, and there is neither the money required to restore it or the desire to do so, but it is an important link to all that occurs in the story. Since the villa was, and is now, in an even worse state of disrepair, and since it is associated with too much loss and too much tragedy for the family and townspeople, who have mixed feelings toward them because of their wartime behavior, the decision not to return was not a very difficult one.
When the story returns to the italics in which the murderer’s ultimate goal is revealed, there is enormous tension created for the reader. Even though the murderer is informing the reader of future plans to destroy every last, living member of the Rosati family, rather than boring or disappointing the reader, since they now know the ultimate plot, it seems that just knowing this information only seems to make the narrative more exciting and the solution to the mystery more inaccessible. So, although I found it a bit unnerving when the murderer related his plans, the foreknowledge certainly heightened my anticipation of events to come, and although I tried to solve the mystery of who the killer might be, until the last few pages, my guesses were all misguided! This author has the gift of keeping the reader on the edge of the seat, wanting to hurriedly turn the next page to discover a clue to solve the mystery, only to be maddeningly led in another plausible direction.
As the story moves back and forth between the past, 1943 and eventually 1944, and the present (1955) murder investigation, the author portrays events that changed the lives of the Italians, during the war. He reveals the madness of Hitler and Mussolini, exposing the fierceness of the military, the violence, destruction and cruelty of the times, but he never avoids pointing out that the Italians were complicit in their own destruction for they supported the axis powers, whom I can only refer to as maniacal megalomaniacs.
The war was perceived by all of the participants differently: the Partisans, the Italians, the Nazis, the Blackshirts, all had a different idea of what they were fighting for and how to go about it. Each had little choice in the path chosen. Some were forced by the Germans to obey, others by the Italians and still others by the Partisans or the pressure of peers who disagreed or agreed at great peril to their own lives. Disobedience probably meant an uncertain and very painful death, sometimes with cause and sometimes merely as an example to others to not betray those that were in charge. Morality, Ethics, right and wrong, simply did not appear to be a major part of the equation, rather it was the need to survive or protect the security of others.
As in so many of his other books, Bohjalian uses history as an underlying theme and illustrates the murderous behavior of despots during wartime. He shines a light on the forces of evil that force good people to sometimes compromise their souls to save themselves or their loved ones. Underlying the murder theme is also a romantic one; there are perhaps two or even three love stories, all of which have a devastating effect on the way that the narrative turns. As always, the author refrains from using gratuitous sex as a device, and instead, uses his skill to keep the reader guessing, wondering who the murderer was going to be, what were the “six degrees of separation” that connected the characters, and how would it all end. He simply keeps pointing in one direction or another, each one perhaps more plausible and each one a maneuver to misdirect you, oh so effectively! If you want a good mystery, look no further.