325 pages. Map, author note.
This book was a great deal of fun to read, being an unusual combination of historical mystery, Gothic romance, WWII occupation and resistance, and murder!
The protagonist is one Adam Strickland, a bright young Cambridge University student who is a bit lazy and not sure what he wants out of life. His advisor has a proposal: go to Tuscany, study a Renaissance garden there, and get his thesis done.
This brings Adam to Italy, where memories of the war – who collaborated, who was in the Resistance – are still fresh in 1958. The Villa Docci itself – where the garden is located – was in fact occupied by the Germans during the war.
After meeting the fragile, aged Signora Docci, Adam at last is introduced to the sunken garden. Designed in the Renaissance, it is made up of an amphitheater, a grotto, and several statuary 'scenes' rooted in classical myth. Supposedly the garden was built by a grieving husband after the death of his wife… but Adam begins to spot anomalies…
Meanwhile, Adam gradually meets the extended Docci family, the servants, and various local characters. There's Maurizio, the married son who soon hopes to take over the villa; Fausto, who was in the Resistance; Antonella, the wild granddaughter and fashion designer; Maria, the servant who sees everything; Signora Fanelli, the beautiful widowed innkeeper… and then Adam's older brother Harry decides to drop in!
And why is the top floor of the villa locked and off limits? Exactly what happened here at the end of WWII? Who shot Emilio?
I found this book a delight to read, especially the first half culminating when one of the mysteries is unlocked in a wonderful sequence. Then I thought it slowed down a bit, only to pick up with a wonderful double-twist of an ending. The only parts I didn't like were the first and last pages, which seemed overly dramatic.
There are a few steamy romance scenes that may be too much for some readers, but they are integral to the plot. The characters are clearly described and colorful, and the garden itself is mysterious and charming. There's even a subplot about Africa and orangutan skulls!
There's not much here that's directly gameable, unless you need inspiration for a mystery-oriented Pulp campaign, or need ideas for a fascists vs resistance campaign.
Highly recommended! A great romp of a novel.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .