Sunday, November 02, 2008

Mystery Book Review: The Last Enemy by Grace Brophy

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of The Last Enemy by Grace Brophy. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

The Last Enemy by Grace Brophy

The Last Enemy by
An Alessandro Cenni Mystery

Soho Crime (Trade Paperback)
ISBN-10: 1-56947-496-6 (1569474966)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56947-496-9 (9781569474969)
Publication Date: May 2008
List Price: $13.00

Review: In her “Author’s Note” to The Last Enemy Grace Brophy quotes Dorothy Sayers as claiming that mystery writers “are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people.” Brophy’s book, its characters and story amply prove Sayer’s point but to be fair Brophy has created as many pleasant and engaging characters as unpleasant ones. So many, in fact, that readers will be clamouring to learn more about them and their adventures in future volumes of the Commissario Alessandro Cenni series set in Italy.

Commissario Cenni – “Alex” to his friends and team members– has all the characteristics for detective stardom. An avid footballer, he thinks for himself, has a pet and a domineering mother. He operates as a maverick with the smarts to confound political interference from his immediate superior, even to push the envelope with political masterminds in Rome. His wife Chiara was kidnapped and has never been found. And his twin brother, Renato, is being anointed in the hierarchy of the church even as Alex and his team of Elena Ottaviani, Piero Tonni, and Sergeant Genine Antolini investigate the death of forty-five year-old American Rita Minelli, an apparent rape-murder victim found strangled on Easter weekend in the crypt of her Italian aristocratic family relatives. Her early pregnancy provides additional shock for the crime as well as increasing the pool of potential suspects and motives. And as Cenni and his crew sort the sand from the salt in their painstaking investigations, the unpleasant people and even the unpleasant sides of the pleasing ones are exposed. A much younger male Canadian companion of Rita’s is jailed for suspicion on the weakest of grounds while members of the Casati family with their trappings of nobility run free. A priest proves he’s only too human in succumbing to sins of the flesh. A Croatian woman, a staniera, is a top of the list suspect but an attractive distraction for the Commissario, even though a rival colleague of his, Fulvio Russo, the womanizing “il lupo to his friends, of whom he had none,” insists she should be arrested as the obvious murderer. Then too, there are Lucia, a Casati maid, gossip and liar; the Count and Countess Casati; their ambitious daughter Artemesia; and Paola her niece with connections to a bomb plot at a McDonald’s, with each bringing the secrets of their baggage for Cenni, Elena, Piro and Genine to assiduously pick through. In the end their sorting is successful and the readers get to know who the guilty party is. But they also learn that not every murderer gets to be appropriately punished and that Italian Commissarios, no matter how well-intentioned, may have to wait for another day and for the next book in the series to see justice properly served.

Brophy’s talent is not only for teasing out mysteries but for exploring human behaviour as well. Her characters are not only rounded but fully rounded. They can exude faults and foibles but some can be charming, gracious and likeable too. And whether it is the story or the development of the characters that Brophy deals with, she writes with an elegance and richness of language and depth of thought. Readers will be hard pressed to find a more powerful passage in current literature than the description of the war crimes transcript for the murder of Sergio Orlic and the rapes of his wife, Sophie, and their daughter, Christina that Commissario Cenni uncovers in his investigation of Rita Minelli’s death. Brophy’s book has major literary merit and deserves a major audience for her ingenious invention of the delightfully “startling and unpleasant incidents and people” in her book.

Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham (mw_cunningham@telus.net) for contributing his review of The Last Enemy and to Soho Press for providing a trade paperback edition of the book for the review.

Review Copyright © 2008 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved.

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Synopsis (from the publisher): Rita grew up in Brooklyn, the only child of a narcissistic Italian mother and the GI she married at the end of World War II. After her mother's death, she quits her teaching job and descends upon her poor but aristocratic relatives, the Count and Countess Casati, in Assisi. It takes a while before they realize, to their chagrin, that Rita has come to stay. When the family assembles to watch the penitentes procession in the town square during Easter Week, a Casati tradition, Rita does not join them as planned. Her corpse is later found in the family mausoleum.

Alessandro Cenni, a commissario in the State Police of Umbria, and a handsome bachelor whose twin brother is about to become a bishop, must penetrate the secrets of the Casati family and their circle if he is to discover who killed Rita and why. But he is blocked by their powerful right-wing connections, and by a superior who prefers to arrest a scapegoat rather than risk political suicide. Aided by a loyal staff in his quest for that rarity-justice-he still must acknowledge that no one can defeat the last enemy, death itself.

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