We’ve all been locked down, to one degree or another, for most of this year. From my nice house in the English countryside, I have felt awestruck by the courage, fellow-feeling, warmth and stoicism of the Italians in the front line and under far greater restrictions and also, I must admit—deeply selfishly—I have felt locked out.
I don’t mind a bit being stuck home with a couple of my own children and my husband. As a writer, my life hasn’t changed a whole lot. I don’t give a damn about queuing at the supermarket, or wearing a mask, or not getting my hair done, or going to the shops.
I care about not seeing my other children, working in London, one of them in a hospital. And I care about not seeing the remarkable city that has made me feel more at home than my own country. I mind about Florence, and about Italy. I mind that they have suffered and will go on suffering in the frontline of this horrible virus. I mind that some—many—of the old people that are its history and lifeblood, wisdom and character, not to mention its childcarers on the beach, will not be there when I get back. From here I have Zoomed, I have WhatsApped, I have Instagrammed; I have gone on virtual tours of the Bardini’s wisteria and the Uffizi, and I have read The Florentine online. But I mind not being there myself, and I hate not knowing when I can come back.
Because 20 years ago, I and my family (husband, four children) came to live in Florence for his sabbatical at the EUI. I had already lived in Modena, spoke Italian and fallen in love with Italy and Italians, but our year in Florence with my children was a time—and more importantly, a place—that very specifically changed my life and began my career, at the age of almost 40.
When I got back to England after our time there in 2000, Florence dominated my longings and my imagination, and to go on dreaming of the city and its wonderful proud people, I began to write about it. I began to write crime novels, or thrillers. The first was set in Florence, and based on my very small advance, I immediately borrowed enough money to buy our tiny flat in San Niccolò. The second took place in the Maremma, the third in Liguria, the fourth back in Florence. And out of that fourth book, A Florentine Revenge, grew the achievement of which I am most proud, my series of Florentine detective stories, the Cellini mysteries, and by some magical trick of fate it is this year, when I once again find myself missing Florence’s people and her magic, that I have returned to the series and am writing, once more, about Italy.
In A Florentine Revenge, Sandro Cellini is a serving officer in the Polizia di Stato; his fierce, kind, sad wife, Luisa, works in a shop Florentines will recognise as being loosely—very loosely—based on the old Raspini in the shadow of the Palazzo Vecchio. As a couple, they are struggling with a private tragedy themselves, which influences Sandro’s behaviour in the aftermath of a child’s abduction and murder. By the end of the book he has committed something approaching a crime himself and will be forced out of the police.
There was a lull after the publication of this book, one of those lulls with which novelists will be familiar, and then a good friend and editor suggested that Sandro could become a private detective, and I was off. I went on to write five Cellini mysteries and loved every minute of it. The joy of returning to a small set of ever more rooted characters, to unfold their lives, to give them fears and longings, to help them through adversity, illness, jealousy, bereavement and to allow them to blossom, is like nothing else. And then—because writing about a foreign country is always going to be something like a niche market—instead of producing the sixth Cellini for which I was contracted, my editor wanted me to write books set in England. I did what I was told. Luckily for me, those books did well and my career took a lurch forward.
But I never forgot that there was a sixth Cellini to deliver. I wasn’t going to get paid much for it, it would mean taking time out and having tricky conversations, but I was fairly determined to get back to Sandro Cellini, his wife Luisa and their not-quite daughter Giuli, ex-con, ex-drug-addict, newly married: my imaginary family of misfits and kind, good people. So, I had the tricky conversations and got down to writing it, and have not been so happy in years.
The sixth instalment of their story, The Viper, takes Sandro back to his first case, the commune of free-living foreigners on the southern edge of Florence that he investigated as a rookie policeman in the seventies when their neighbours accused them, more or less, of running an underage brothel. This isn’t a cold case or a leap back in time: the commune has long since been abandoned, we are in the present day. But two bodies have been found near the ruined commune, and when Sandro is drafted in to help the investigation by his ex-employers, the Polizia di Stato, history comes full circle…
I am inexpressibly happy to be publishing this book now, when I have spent months longing for Florence, my adoptive city, as never before. I don’t know whether it will be a success: people may well have more urgent ways to spend their money in these challenging months and years. But I believe in the durability of these stories, and of fiction in hard times, and of good characters. And, most of all, I believe in this marvellous and beautiful and resilient city and her people, and I am proud to have been able to pay tribute, in my small way, to their greatness.
The Viper by Christobel Kent (Corvus) is now available from Amazon and the Paperback Exchange bookstore in Florence. Christobel’s previous titles A Time of Mourning, A Fine and Private Place, The Dead Season, A Darkness Descending and The Killing Room are also available in paperback and eBook.