A woman sits at a vanity, brushing her hair and preparing for bed. A knock at the door. An intruder. Death. More than murder — the killer cuts open his victim’s chest and rips out her heart. She is the first, he warns. There will be others.
Yes, over the first few pages, “The Light in the Ruins” has all the characteristics of a potboiler, a grisly whodunit. But as is always the case with a Chris Bohjalian novel, there is nothing typical about it. This is his first mystery — previous books have been about everything from homeopathic medicine to the transgendered — and he brings to it the subtlety and language of the literary novelist he is.
It is 1955 and the setting is Florence. The victim was Francesca Rosati, daughter-in-law of a marchese in Tuscany. Francesca already had her share of pain: the death of her husband and two young children at the hands of the Nazis a dozen years earlier. Why this, too?
It’s a question that must be answered by Detective Serafina Bettini, the only woman in Florence’s small homicide squad. When Beatrice Rosati, the marchesa, meets a similarly brutal fate, it becomes clear that this was not a random act of violence. Someone has a grudge against the family.
The action shifts back and forth in time, from 1943 to 1955. The Rosatis were local royalty. Their estate, called Villa Chimera, boasted livestock, a vineyard and an olive grove. It also had a small Etruscan necropolis that attracted Nazis anxious to loot its art.
The family was powerless to resist, as the Nazis pillaged not only artworks but also food. “What have I done?” the family patriarch, Antonio asks. His failure to more actively resist filled him with “a deep, visceral current of self-loathing.”
What made it worse, the Rosati daughter, Christine, fell in love with a Nazi officer.
As we learn more about the Rosatis, we also uncover layers about the detective investigating the case. Serafina was a partisan in Tuscany in 1943; she was badly disfigured and almost killed in a firefight, but has no clear memory of what happened to her — at first.
Tension builds as the killer prepares to strike again — even planning to kill the wife and children of the Rosatis’ one surviving son.
The denouement is dead solid perfect. Bohjalian has written another winner.
Curt Schleier is a freelance book critic in New Jersey.