Poor Oswald De Lacy is in a bad way. He is running from grief in his past and internal mental torment when he finds himself stuck in Venice. “That doesn’t sound so bad” do I here you say? But this isn’t Venice of today filled with light, beauty, energy and tourists this is the Venice of deep winter 1358. The city is under siege due to a conflict with Hungary. Provisions are running low. The city has barely begun recovering from the black death. Suspicion and paranoia rule in the form of the mysterious and autocratic ‘Council of Ten’. The secret police can seize anyone suspected of spying or immoral behaviour and drag them away for torture and even execution.
He finds himself here after being diverted from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his mother. They take accommodation in the home of an old family friend, John Bearpark, a rather bad tempered old man who chargers them for their stay and is far from a gracious host. Along with a couple of odd fellow pilgrims the household is also consists of the Bearpark’s young pregnant wife Filomena (who Oswald finds himself disturbingly drawn to), his hard drinking party loving grandson Enrico and a handful of rude servants.
I suppose the best our Oswald can do is keep his head down and stay quiet until the siege is lifted and he can move on…some hope! First he is persuaded to join Enrico in his partying and gets mixed up with some rather rough people, gets in trouble with too much gabbling and attracts the unwelcome attention of the Council of Ten. The last thing he needs is to stumble across a mutilated corpse…but that is what happens.
Compelled to investigate the crime by pressure from his host who wants to avoid potential scandal he embarks on a quest that puts him in danger from every side. He must seek out a murderer in a city where asking questions can see you accused of spying. He must explore the underworld of Venice at a time when any moral transgression, or mere suspicion of it, can see you burned at the stake. A tricky task indeed!
The best thing about this book is the setting. The dark, spooky canals of medieval Venice help increase the sense of peril. I also liked an historical book set in an era that has not been overdone, as I sometime feel the Tudor period has. The characters were also good, I was left wanting to know what happened next to the characters (…those who survived that is!).
It’s a fairly exciting story but I felt the mystery itself was the weakest aspect. I think the characters and setting would have been even more enjoyable if this hadn’t been a ‘who-done-it’, this aspect felt a bit shoehorned in, I could almost picture the meeting in the publishing house when they decided this had to fit into the crime genre because historical detectives are so popular. The novel would have worked just as well if it had been the same characters in the same setting experiencing a number of things including murder but without following the formula of a detective character investigating the crime.