The Villa Triste begins in Florence in 1943 just after Mussolini has surrendered to the Allies, however the Germans are not giving up without a fight and their invasion of major Italian cities gives Mussolini the change to regain power. While the Nazi occupation is bad enough, it also opens the door for the return of the Fascists who are far more dangerous and the Florentines find themselves caught between the Nazis, the Fascists and the advancing Allies.
The Cammaccio sisters, Caterina and Isabella, soon find themselves caught up with the partisans who are determined to free Italy from its occupiers, no matter what the cost. Caterina has no idea how deeply involved her family are with the partisans until she learns they are hiding POWs in the basement of the house, an act punishable by death. Before long, Caterina is using her position as a nurse to help smuggle out POWs and Jews over the mountains.
The first few chapters tell Caterina’s story and they are by far my favourite part of the novel as the author captures the claustrophobic mood of occupied Florence perfectly. Grindle doesn’t waste a lot of time describing the famous landmarks or the history of Florence so the odd references to the past may not mean a lot to a casual reader but, luckily for me, I’ve just finished reading about the House of Medici, so I’m more familiar with the history of Florence than I would’ve been had I read this book a couple of months ago.
Once Caterina’s involvement in the war is established, the book moves to the present day where someone is killing the old partisan heroes of the war. Inspector Alessandro Pallioti, the lead investigator, finds Caterina’s diary amongst the personal effects of the first old man to die, and the rest of the Cammaccio sisters’ story is told via the diary, revealing a tragic story of betrayal.
Unfortunately, the modern day investigation is where the book trips up as the passages are bogged down with too much detail and the pace becomes excruciatingly slow. Pallioti also has an annoying habit of repeating everything he is told while questioning someone and it starts to get very monotonous. Simple example: if a witness states the victim liked milk with his coffee, Pallioti would then say, “He liked milk with his coffee?”
The heart of the mystery is easy to work out though, mainly because so much of it is signposted by Grindle and the reader is just waiting on Pallioti catching up. I’m not sure if the clues were a deliberate ploy to tease the reader but they are so heavy handed, they suck the tension out of the plot and neutralise plot twists.
When I was reading this book, I had no idea it was part of a series of investigations involving Pallioti, however I don’t think I missed out on anything by not having read the first book, other than the odd background piece of information. In fact, if Grindle had chosen to ignore the present day and had just concentrated on the story of the Cammaccio sisters, I would’ve loved this book so much more. Grindle has a real talent for capturing the feel of Italy, especially during the turbulent war years, and this was definitely one of the strengths of the novel. Pallioti’s investigation is tedious in comparison and I couldn’t wait to get back to the passages relating Caterina and Isabella’s story.