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'Flowers Over The Inferno' Has A Tantalizing Weirdness

Small towns filled with secrets and an unlikely detective duo go together like an Aperol spritz before pasta – which is to say, very well. The small town in Illaria Tuti's Flowers Over the Inferno, translated by Ekin Oklap, is located in the northern Italian mountains and the duo in question are two cops sent to solve a startling, eye-gouging murder (I'm being literal here). How well these two investigators pair up is a matter of debate, though.

One of the best parts of Flowers Over the Inferno is the older, gruff superintendent Teresa Battaglia. She is out of shape, diabetic and busy fighting the early stages of Alzheimer's disease — on top of handling a complex case. We sympathize with Battaglia quite naturally, and it's nice to see a cop who isn't slim and sexy chasing after serial killers. Unfortunately, her younger counterpart and new investigator in town, Massimo Marini, seems to exist at the edges of the tale.

In a novel in which both of these characters should have almost equal heft, Marini ends up being superfluous. We learn little of him, except that he's young and can find books in a library. It feels like he's there merely so we can meet Battaglia and marvel at how much he gets scolded.

Paradoxically, we also don't learn enough about Battaglia. I didn't realize this was the first volume of a new series of books when I picked it up, so part of this feeling of missing bits may just turn out to be the natural result of introductionitis (yes, I made up a word). I'm sure we'll discover more about Battaglia's tragic past, Marini's reasons for leaving the big city, and the like down the line. But for now there were several moments which tasted of toast with not enough butter.

The pace of the book and the number of points of view are another stumbling block. Very short chapters breeze by like bullets, whipping us back and forth. It can make for a quick read, but there are also times when one feels like asking the author to take a breath.

When it works, 'Flowers Over the Inferno' works nicely indeed, and when it doesn't, you are left with enough goodwill to pat it on the back.

The highlights: There is a tantalizing weirdness in the flashbacks to a creepy institution that conducted grotesque experiments in the 1970s. That, plus the gory attacks, the identity of the killer, and the ultimate truth about the shenanigans in this quaint village are all original enough to tie the narrative into a whole.

When it works, Flowers Over the Inferno works nicely indeed, and when it doesn't, you are left with enough goodwill to pat it on the back. Italy offers a nice break from all those northern European thrillers, and I did love the closing sentence of the book. I'd buy this book a drink, but maybe not a whole meal. Sometimes, however, that Aperol spritz is all you need, especially in summer.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is The Beautiful Ones. She tweets at @silviamg.

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