A bleak and hostile place

Christobel Kent’s A Time of Mourning

Helen Glave
September 10, 2009

Living in Florence in summertime may not be easy but at least it's colourful and bright. A far cry, then, from the grim November setting of A Time of Mourning, Christobel Kent's latest novel, which opens on il giorno dei morti, the day of the dead, when Italians traditionally pay a visit to the graves of their loved ones. Soon comes word of a new death: a distinguished Florentine has committed suicide by drowning himself in the Arno. Even the weather colludes in a growing sense of foreboding. The action takes place in the heaviest rains since the 1966 flood and the Arno is a menacing protagonist, its muddy waters swirling, churning, ever-rising.

 

A Time of Mourning, Kent's third novel set in Florence, reintroduces Sandro Cellini, who first made an appearance in A Florentine Revenge. Cellini, lifelong resident of the quartiere of Santa Croce, is a disgraced policeman turned private eye who is endowed with the qualities we have come to expect in fictional detectives: world-weary, taciturn, he is also honest and principled. He is not immune to nagging self-doubt, or to rueful reflections on his unglamorous lifestyle, so unlike the fast-living heroes of Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler who dangle off the arms of gorgeous, long-legged women. Cellini, though, is ably supported by his wife, Luisa, who dispatches him to work with sound advice and a packed lunch of baccalà alla Livornese.

 

Cellini's first client is the grieving widow of Claudio Gentileschi, the holocaust survivor and eminent architect who has committed suicide. As he investigates the man's past for possible motives for his action, Cellini becomes embroiled in the mysterious disappearance of Veronica, a visiting art student from England.

 

As in her earlier Florentine novels, A Party in San Niccolò, and A Florentine Revenge, Kent is unflinching in her description of Florence's murky underbelly. Off-season and away from the usual tourist haunts, the city is a much bleaker, more hostile place. Cellini sets up his office in San Frediano, whose romantic reputation as the ‘real' Florence is undermined by its unwholesome housing and dismal bars selling inedible food. Windows overlook cluttered builders' yards; playgrounds are muddy and neglected and home to the city's down-and-outs. Even the nearby Boboli gardens are gloomy and sodden, abandoned by all but a colony of stray cats. Interiors are mostly draughty, soulless places with clanking radiators and a dearth of daylight.

 

Kent's novels fall into the increasingly popular genre of crime combined with travel writing, offering the reader the double feast of a mystery in a vividly portrayed setting. Kent knows Florence well and draws an intricate map of the city, signposting the way with street names and landmarks. A Time of Mourning takes us from San Frediano to San Niccolò, across the river to Santa Croce, Bellariva and the area of Piazza d'Azeglio, and further afield to the residential areas north of the railway line. Florentine readers will find themselves on familiar territory although a map illustration might have been a useful addition for those less well-acquainted with the city.

 

The novel is peopled by an array of minor characters, some of whom are recognizable Florentine ‘types': from the handsome, southern-born Carabanieri to the embattled but kindly local residents of the more down-at-the-heel quartieri. Here, as in her earlier novels, Kent delights in bringing together the city's resident population and its frequently naive and reckless visitors, through whose eyes we get a rare glimpse of the famous arches, spires and domes bathed in a kindlier, softer light.

When Magdalen Nabb, San Frediano resident and acknowledged doyenne of Florentine crime fiction, died suddenly two years ago, she left a gap that Kent, currently working on her next Sandro Cellini novel, seems destined to fill.  

 

 

A Time of Mourning

by Christobel Kent

Atlantic Books, euro 15, 50

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