Source: Review copy
Publication: 30 March 2023 from Penguin
My thanks to Transworld and Random Things Tours for an advance copy for review, and my apologies for the lateness of this post!
In a remote castle high up in the Tuscan hills secrets are simmering among its glamorous English residents:
The ailing gentleman art-dealer
His dazzling niece
Her handsome Fascist husband
Their neglected young daughter
The housekeeper who knows everything
and Connie, the English widow working for them.
Every night, Connie hears sinister noises and a terrible wailing inside the walls. Is she losing her grip on reality?
Or does someone in the castle want her gone?
Rachel Rhys has written a beautifully described mystery set in Tuscany in the 1920’s. So beautifully described that you can feel the Tuscan heat on your shoulders and imagine yourself in the castle in which the action takes place.
Written as a first person narrative, the story is told by Constance Bowen, a woman whose husband has recently died. A woman with nursing experience during the war, and with suffragette sympathies, Constance’s marriage was not a loving one and the loss of her daughter, leaving her with only her son James, now in his early 20’s, has left her looking for something to do with her life.
On a spur of the moment decision, she answers an advertisement in The Lady to be a companion to William North, a stroke victim in Tuscany. The ad has been placed by North’s niece, Evelyn who together with her husband, Roberto, live in and have charge of the castle.
To Constance’s surprise she is offered the role and plucking up her courage, she determines a change will be good for her and accepts.
When she gets there, she finds that not everything is as she had imagined. Evelyn seems to be a flighty young woman whose approach to her young child Nora is one of careless regret. Evelyn is married to the darkly handsome Roberto who is rather closer to the blackshirt movement than Evelyn is comfortable with. Meeting her charge, William is another surprise, for although he has had a cerebral haemorrhage which has affected both his speech and his movement, North is rather younger than she had anticipated.
From the outset, the welcome she receives and the interactions with the castle’s occupants are deeply unsettling. Things happen which cannot be explained and Constance finds that though she knows perfectly well that she is competent, nevertheless she begins to lose any confidence she has as strange occurrences, disappearances and odd happenings all seem to undermine her judgement.
Evelyn is mercurial; at one moment all smiles and happiness, lavishing affection on Constance and at another, questioning everything Constance does. William is a taciturn charge who puts up with her ministering to him but seems wary of everyone around him.
Rhys creates a vivid set of characters in and around this castle with some pretty loathsome characters, some pretty gruesome expat behaviour and a decidedly off kilter existence that overshadows everything that happens in this Tuscan idyll. It’s not just the blackshirts that are causing a shadow.
The writing is briskly paced and she really does do the unsettling elements very well indeed. So much so that you begin to question Constance’s reliability as a narrator when she cannot seem to remember whether she has been following instructions as they were given or not.
Verdict: An easy, flowing narrative quickly gets the reader into the central plot and the mystery and intrigue all build up to a crescendo where you begin to wonder who is innocent and who, is anyone, is responsible for some life threatening moments. Hugely enjoyable, suspenseful and very much embedded in the life and times of the period, this is a great read and one that I’d recommend for excellent holiday reading.
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Rachel Rhys is the pseudonym of psychological thriller writer Tammy Cohen. Her debut, Dangerous Crossing, was a bestselling Richard and Judy Book Club pick and was followed by A Fatal Inheritance and Island of Secrets. Rachel’s latest novel, Murder Under the Tuscan Sun is once again superb historical suspense crime, this time with an irresistible Italian 1920s setting. She lives in North London, with her three (allegedly) grown up children and her neurotic rescue dog.