Meet Sandro Cellini, Florence's answer to Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti.
One wet November in Florence, the grieving widow of an eminent Jewish architect comes to visit Sandro Cellini, good husband, disgraced ex-policeman, and recently turned PI, to ask him to investigate her husband's suicide. Cellini takes her on out of sympathy, although this first case makes a downbeat start to his new career. There seems no doubt that Claudio Gentileschi, a Holocaust survivor and lifelong depressive found drowned on a bleak stretch of the River Arno, did take his own life, and initially Cellini imagines that his only duty is to support the widow through her time of mourning.
But as Cellini doggedly retraces the architect's last hours through the worst rains since the devastating floods of 1966, a young Englishwoman is found to have gone missing from the city's community of hard-drinking, high-living art students, and Sandro's search turns abruptly into something grimmer and more urgent than he could have imagined, as he uncovers a network of greed and corruption that is hidden under a veneer of tradition and refinement.
The Drowning River is a spot-on, atmospheric new mystery, the first in a series featuring Cellini.
About the Author
Christobel Kent was born in London and grew up in London and Essex, including a stint on the Essex coast on a Thames barge with three siblings and four step-siblings, before reading English at Cambridge. She has worked in publishing and TEFL teaching, and has lived in Modena, in northern Italy, and in Florence. She has written four novels set in Italy and now lives in Cambridge with her husband and five children.
Christobel Kent was born in London and grew up in London and Essex, including a stint on the Essex coast on a Thames barge with three siblings and four step-siblings, before reading English at Cambridge. She has worked in publishing and TEFL teaching, and has lived in Modena, in northern Italy, and in Florence. She has written several novels set in Italy, including The Drowning River and A Murder in Tuscany, and lives in Cambridge with her husband and five children.
Read an Excerpt
It Took Four Days for the knock at the door. Four long, quiet days in the fading light of an unseasonably mild November, and plenty of time for Sandro to decide whether he liked the two rooms Luisa had found for him to use as an office, if not to make up his mind about what he was doing there in the first place.
It had not occurred to Sandro that he'd be in at the deep end with the first job. He thought he might get eased in gently but, then again, the world doesn't work like that. It was a lesson he should have learned long ago, that life doesn't owe you a warning.
The rooms Luisa had found were on the second floor, square and light and plain in a peaceful street off the Piazza Tasso in San Frediano. The street was the Via del Leone, with a small glassed-in shrine to the Madonna on the corner and at least four candles burning, the sign of a God-fearing neighbourhood, or a superstitious one, depending on how you looked at it. Sandro Cellini stood somewhere between the two, born Catholic, naturally enough, but a rationalist by thirty years of police training. He was too ambivalent as a result to go to Mass more than a couple of times a year, Easter and baptisms, but he liked the shrine, anyhow. And where there was God, there were old ladies. When he had been in the police force – a phrase that still knocked him back – Sandro had found pious elderly women always ready to provide detailed testimony as well as to light candles for divine intervention.
The buildings of the Via del Leone were humble, no more than three storeys, and as a consequence the street itself was sunnier, quieter than his home turf, the acoustics less grating on the ear when the first of the morning motorini whined down it on their way to the centre. Born and bred north of the river in Santa Croce among noisy, narrow streets the sun never found, as he stood at the window that looked into the street on his first day, Sandro didn't know if he'd ever get used to it.
It was Florence, undeniably it was, but it wasn't the city he'd woken up in every morning for fifty-eight years, where only a shard of blue sky was visible and the street outside vibrated with din from seven in the morning. A cacophonous opera made up of the crash of bins being emptied, the squeak of the buses' air brakes, the rumble of taxis, the first tourist group of the morning stopping on the corner to be informed loudly in Spanish or German or Japanese of where Dante had been born and Galileo buried.
Looking down, Sandro saw that it might be quiet, but it wasn't deserted after all. He watched as an old woman led her small, overcoated dog to the kerb so it could crap on someone's front tyre; soon enough, he thought, he'd know whose car that was and whether he cared or not. She was carrying a bedraggled bunch of chrysanthemums, heading for the cemetery, no doubt. Coming the other way, he saw a pretty girl; a student maybe, with long hair, long legs in dark jeans, stupidly huge studded and tasselled handbag. She was running, in a hurry; almost opposite the house she sidestepped the old lady and her flowers and her dog, and, as if she knew he was up there, the girl tilted her head and was looking back at Sandro. Her eyes slid over him and, ashamed, he ducked away. He wasn't in this to eyeball passers-by, was he?
Sandro retreated to his desk. It had been found for him, like the flat, like every other piece of furniture from the grey filing cabinet to the elderly but respectable computer, by Luisa. In the silence he reflected that the lack of tourist groups, at least, was a mercy. A fondness for the sound of a Vespa or buses' brakes might be his own private perversion, but he'd never learned to love the guided tours. Luisa had pointed out that he'd better start learning to love the tourists, because they might turn out to be his bread and butter, just like they were hers.
'I'm going to start tomorrow,' he'd announced when she got home from the shop the previous night. It hadn't gone down well.
'Ognissanti?' Luisa said with flat dismay. 'Really?' She stood in the kitchen with her coat still on, smelling of woodsmoke from the street.
Ognissanti was All Saints' Day, the first of November, followed by All Souls' the day after. Two days when all the leaves fall at once, and flowers are laid on the graves of loved ones. Tradition was, Ognissanti should be a day for quiet reflection, and the consideration of mortality.
'Why not?' Sandro said, defensively. 'They called this afternoon to say the phone line's been installed. I've had enough of hanging around.'
But he knew why not. Religion, habit, duty to the dead, not to mention that it might be obscurely inauspicious to start halfway through a week. And although Luisa was no more religious than he was, the tug of familial duty was stronger; her mother more recently dead. She had to get up early to take flowers to her mother's grave out in Scandicci, before heading in to the city.
'You'll be at work yourself, after all,' Sandro said.
Like many other religious days, the feast's status as a public holiday was being eroded, particularly in the big cities with their wealthy, godless visitors, and Luisa's employer, Frollini, had given in years back. They did good business in November, with the stock room crammed to overflowing and the windows full of sheepskins and velvet and party dresses. Luisa didn't like it, but it was the new Italy.
'It seems like bad luck,' she said uneasily.
'I don't want to put it off any longer,' said Sandro with finality, and she could see that that, at least, was true.
Grumbling, she had got up even earlier than usual to cook for him.
'Your first day, you'll take something hot to eat,' she said, when he wandered into the kitchen, bleary-eyed, to remonstrate with her. The pristine lilies she had bought the night before for her mother stood in the sink.
She'd given him baccalà – salt cod stewed with tomatoes – and when Sandro prised open the foil dish six hours later at his new desk it was still just warm; but then again, it was barely midday. He had been on the job three hours, and had done nothing but ogle a girl through the window and open a file on the computer for his accounts, before closing it again. Expenses to date, five thousand euro, give or take. Income, zero.
Sandro devoured the rich salty stew in five mouthfuls, suddenly starving. He spilled a little of the sauce on his desktop and although he rubbed at it immediately, cursing, it left a tiny orange stain. A good start, he thought to himself. What will the clients think, supposing any ever materialize? He felt ready to hurl something at the wall; what a slob. That night he told Luisa he'd maybe experiment with the local bar for lunch; she eyed him warily.
'Gone off my cooking?' He shook his head. 'As if,' he said. 'Just – well. I need to get to know the neighbourhood.' She nodded, deciding not to be offended. He didn't tell her the baccala incident had made him feel like a small boy on the first day at school, on a knife edge of misery.
'How was the visit?' he said. 'The cemetery?'
She was pale; he remembered she had been up since six, and he cursed himself for letting her work so hard. He could have just said, I'll start tomorrow, couldn't he?
'Fine,' she said. 'It was good.' She smiled and he could see that for all her pallor and weariness, it had made her happy. For Luisa a visit to the cemetery always kindled something; she still spoke to her mother, standing at the grave, once she had spent twenty minutes arranging the lilies. It was another example of her mysterious superiority, that Luisa was not afraid of grief.
Sandro had been nineteen when his mother died – she had had cancer, though Sandro never knew where – and just coming to the end of his military service. He came back for the funeral in his uniform, unable to cry. His father went to his own grave a year later; they had been hard-working country people with no time for the expression of emotion, and although he'd been no more than sixty the loss had simply been too much for him to bear. Sandro had found himself stunned into silence by their abrupt absence.
It was suddenly too late to ask them anything; within six months he had met Luisa, and asked her to marry him. At the time it had seemed like the only way to survive; within five years he realized that he couldn't remember his father's face without taking up the framed photograph he kept in a drawer, and staring hard at it. They were in his head somewhere, the pair of them hand in hand in oldfashioned clothes, but he did not want to think about them; he didn't have Luisa's trick of taking sadness by the hand and making it a friend.
'I'm a very lucky man,' he said to her back as she stirred something on the stove. 'Very lucky.'
One of the things Sandro turned over in his mind as he sat there on day two – All Souls,' a little cloudier than day one, the November light a little thinner and paler – was this alteration in his relationship with Luisa. Thirty years married – or was it thirty-one? – and suddenly Luisa was in charge. While he'd been in the force they'd run along separate tracks, two blindsided locomotives, each oblivious to the other's direction. With pain he thought of the big police station out at Porta al Prato on the busy viale. Standing guard at the north-eastern approach to the city, the warm, busy corridors, the long, shuttered windows, the camaraderie. Misguided nostalgia, he reminded himself; where was the camaraderie now?
That was unfair, clearly it was. He still saw his old comrades now and again in the city; they'd nod and exchange a word in the street; he thought they'd stand him a coffee if he ever found himself back in the bar on the viale they used to frequent. But what conversation would they have? 'Sorry, mate'? The murky old Caffe Tramvai – there'd been trams running past the Porta al Prato once, before Sandro was born – with its Formica tables and sixties décor, and the best trippa alla fiorentina in the city. He thought of those lunch-breaks now and again, when his guard was down; they would all crowd in there at twelve-thirty and stand eating the ragout out of little bowls, steaming, sweet, garlic and tomatoes and tender fragments of meat. But that friendly shared coffee was never going to happen, was it? Sandro had avoided the place like the plague since the day of his departure on a cold, dark January day nearly two years ago.
Sandro was no longer a police officer. At least, he considered gloomily, he had not been discharged, dishonourably or otherwise; at least he had been allowed early retirement. It had been more than a face-saver; it had meant he could work, because the opportunities for a disgraced policeman were limited. If there'd been any sympathy for his offence among his colleagues, Sandro didn't seek it out; he didn't want to be forgiven. The offence of relaying confidential information to the father of an abducted child.
The child's disappearance had come at a bad time; if you believed in astrology, at some disastrous conjunction of planets, it had always been inevitable that further tragedy could only follow from it. It had been a long time ago, with Luisa the wrong side of forty, and the possibility that they would never have children of their own was turning to stone-dead certainty for both of them. The girl – nine years old – had disappeared from a crowded pool, her body found at a bend in a river in the Apennines a week later, caught in reeds.
No arrest had been made, though they'd had their suspect all right, and Sandro had kept in touch with the child's father. Why? It was obvious why, people sometimes said to him, it was the human impulse, it was out of sympathy, but Sandro had offered no excuses at the disciplinary hearing; he had remained silent when they were asked of him. He had merely admitted that he had, yes, kept the bereaved, the now childless father, informed; had supplied him eventually with the name and whereabouts of the chief suspect in his daughter's murder, with every scrap of information. And when, fifteen years later, the suspect – against whom no charges had ever been brought – was found murdered, the whole thing unravelled. Sandro had known immediately that he was responsible for the paedophile's death, whoever had in fact held the knife against his throat.
The dead man had been guilty, they knew that now, but it had still been wrong. One little breach in the rule of law and the whole thing comes apart at frightening speed; the murderer is murdered, and one of his victims ends up with blood on her own hands. And once you have lied to a man who trusts you, to your partner of more than a decade, you cannot be sure he will ever trust you again.
And that was how Sandro came to find himself adrift. But thirty years in the police leave their mark; it was too late for him to become anything else.
Pietro was still a friend, of course, his partner of thirteen years and as close to a marriage as you can get. Pietro still called at the apartment every other Thursday, religiously, to haul Sandro out for a drink, to talk about football and Fiorentina's death plunge down through the divisions, a grumble about the new commissario seconded from Turin, nothing too close to the bone. They didn't talk about Sandro's disgrace, and though Sandro felt the warmth of Pietro's sympathy he shied away from voicing his gratitude; it wasn't the relationship he wanted.
Thirteen years in the same grubby fug of their allotted police vehicle, you get to know the smell of another man's socks, his aftershave, what he eats for breakfast. How he takes his coffee. Caffè alto, for Pietro, down in one then another on its tail, to kickstart the day; there are some questions that don't need asking, after thirteen years. Sometimes now, taking his coffee alone, Sandro had to close his eyes so as not to wish it all back again.
Perhaps Luisa had always been in charge. Sitting in the thin sunlight, eyes closed, Sandro felt curiously comforted as he mused on that possibility. Those long years of quiet unhappiness together during which each had shouldered his own burden – the lack of children, the ugliness of daily police work, the shrinking of expectations – Luisa had been in charge all along. Biding her time for the moment when her superior skills would be called for.
Over those four days in the Via del Leone he did come to the conclusion that Luisa knew what she was doing, all right. He'd come with her to see the place, and he hadn't seen its potential; if truth be told, he'd been downcast by it. Luisa had found out, through the usual mysterious means, that it was about to come on the market, a second-floor walk-up, two rooms and a tiny kitchen inhabited by an exhausted-looking elderly couple and their disabled daughter, who were about to be rehoused in 'more suitable' accommodation. That should have given him the hint; public housing was hard to come by, and the comune didn't step in lightly. The disabled daughter turned out to be middle-aged, brain-damaged and quadriplegic since birth, parked in a tiny kitchen in a wheelchair. The apartment had no bathroom, a fact that did not dawn on Sandro until they left.
'My God,' he'd said in the street below, thinking of all those years carrying their helpless child up and down the stairs, while she turned into a middle-aged woman. Luisa had squeezed his hand. 'It's a sad place,' she said. 'I think that's why they haven't been able to find a tenant.'
That and the builder's yard below the window, currently full of orange plastic tubing, maybe. But there was a sliver of a view of the back of Santa Maria dell'Carmine, if you were disposed to concentrate on that instead, on the frescoes inside that Sandro hadn't seen since he was a boy, the Adam and Eve, Eve with her hand up to her mouth. These things all settled in his mind in those idle hours. He wondered where they were now, that couple and their ageing daughter, and whether they missed their view. Nonsense, Luisa would say briskly. Modern bathroom, ground-floor access, lifts and bars and all sorts after forty years hauling the grown child up two flights of stairs? Nonsense. It'll make a good office, and they're better off where they are.
Day two, just before lunch, Sandro found himself looking down into the street again; he saw the woman with her dog, and realized he was watching for the girl. Out of police habit, getting the lie of the land, or because she'd been pretty? He turned tail, unable to give himself the benefit of the doubt. She had been pretty.
Excerpted from "The Drowning River"
Copyright © 2009 Christobel Kent.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“I loved this book and hated putting it down. It manages to be both a taut thriller and a beautifully observed story of a young woman’s coming-of-age set in a Florence in full flood. Michael Dibdin meets Muriel Spark.”—Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It
“Elaborate and convincing . . . I gobbled it up—how could one help it? Such a potent sense of place and such gripping events.” —Diana Athill, author of Somewhere Towards the End and Stet
“Brilliantly evocative.” —The Bookseller
“Kent has written an intelligent and convincing thriller with fleshed-out characters you want to meet again.” —The Daily Mail
"...the beginning of a potent and promising new series.Kent masterfully builds the suspense to the breaking point... Add the absorbing plot to characters fashioned with care and depth, smooth and polished prose and a detailed and loving portrait of Florence, and you have an accomplished first outing in what has all the marks of a distinguished series." Richmond Times-Dispatch
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sandro Cellini was forced to leave the police department before the scandal destroyed him. He has opened up a private investigative firm in Florence, but four days into his vigil, he is bored and concerned that no case has come his way. However, his optimism is renewed when elderly Lucia Gentileschi wants to hire him to investigate the death of her architect husband Claudio. He drowned in what the police declared is a suicide but she insists he was murdered. Although he feels for the widow needing her husband to have died by someone else's hands, he struggles not to allow his sympathy for the senora to cloud his judgment; especially as the case hits home with what has happened to him and his loyal wife Luisa. British art student Iris March refuses to cover up the night life of her roommate Veronica "Ronnie" Hutton any longer. However when Ronnie vanishes, police detective Falco senses her guilt and misinterprets it. Ronnie's mom Serena arrives at the police station; demanding answers of Falco, who brings her to Sandro. She hires him to find her daughter. This is a strong Italian investigative psychological thriller that rotates the two cases effortlessly while enabling the audience to know what bothers and frightens the lead character and several of the key secondary players. Both inquiries are solid as Sandro finds intriguing clues that take him all over Florence in the present and to the Holocaust in the Gentileschi investigation. The Downing River is a great Florence thriller. Harriet Klausner
After years of excellent Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin and Andrea Camilleri books, this reads poorly and if it were cinema, it would be called a 'chick flick'. That's $10 I'll never see again. The author should have hired a better editor - I didn't want a tour of the city, I live in Italy part of the year. I wanted a dynamic main character. I didn't get that, and all the obnoxious college / art students? Reminds me of the creepy American girl who killed her British roommate in Perugia. Awful.