Reviewed by Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64)
In the first chapter of Death in the Dolomites, David Wagner, with meticulous detail, guides us along the well-choreographed movements of an unidentified man clearly in the midst of nefarious activity. Without a single word spoken, we know a crime has been committed. The mystery man is taking great care to hide the evidence. It turns out to be the most captivating scene in this gentle mystery.
Our hero, Rick Montoya, an Italian-American translator, is on a ski vacation in a charming Dolomite tourist village, home of his college roommate. An American banker is reported missing. Unbeknownst to Rick, his Italian uncle, a detective in Rome, has intervened to bring Rick’s services to the attention of Inspector Luca Albani who has been called from Trento to investigate. Rick readily agrees to act as translator between the inspector and Cat, the beautiful American sister of the missing man.
Before long, teen-aged skiers discover the bagged body of the missing banker snowed over on the mountain and the case becomes a homicide. Over the leisurely course of the narrative, we are introduced to the town characters, their relationships with each other, and hints of motives that make some of them suspects. The jovial mayor who does a lively business carving bears for the tourists. His attractive former wife, a ski instructor. The two real estate moguls, now also competitive developers of tourist hotels. The wife of one of the realtors, who owns a bakery and is also running for mayor. The US consul officer. The gondola operator. The ski shop owner. The electrician. The historic church and graveyard. The snow bathed mountain.
But most of all we are introduced to Italian food and drink, lots and lots of it. Every meal parsed to its multiple courses, every bottle of wine examined as to its origins and appropriateness. Clearly the author loves Italian cuisine as some people love puppies. Foodies may be enchanted.
I’m personally pleased to find a murder mystery in which neither the quirky inspector nor the hero is a drunk or addict. There is no torture or gore, no abused children or explosions. The people of the village do not live in fear. A reader can sleep easily between chapters. But in a community where all but three characters are Italian, all the dialogue is in the same thorough English spoken in complete sentences of perfect diction.
From time to time, Rick and Luca, over a meal, review the case and the evidence for or against each of the leading contenders to the crime. One can imagine Poirot gathering all the suspects into the dining car. Numerous characters remind us too frequently that news travels fast and there are no secrets in a small town. As the perpetrators begin to fear that, with Rick’s help, he and Luca are getting close to solving the mystery, they make several attempts on Rick’s life — each contrived to seem like an accident that might easily occur on a ski mountain.
The course of the mystery is plausible, but not compelling, given endless pauses for eating. The characters are thumbnail sketches, small-town colorful without depth. The plot gets us to the resolution by way of a few gasps and lovely atmospherics. All is tied up in the last few pages.
Reviewer Geraldine Kennedy is the author of Harmattan: A Journey Across the Sahara; Publisher, Clover Park Press. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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