It’s a Mystery: We run away from what scares or hurts us--or from what holds us captive

It’s a Mystery, posts by Irma Heldman

Flowers Over the Inferno
By Ilaria Tuti
Translated from the Italian by Ekin Oklap
Soho Crime, 2019

Flowers Over the Inferno By Ilaria Tuti, Translated from the Italian by Ekin Oklap, Soho Crime, 2019

A woman in her mid-sixties, overweight, diabetic, a lonely survivor of an abusive relationship, and full of the ailments of aging doesn’t exactly describe what one would consider a compelling new heroine. Wrong!  The above only superficially captures Superintendent Teresa Battaglia. . Actually, she’s the indelible, quite irresistible star of Flowers Over the Inferno, a debut novel that is the first installment in a procedural thriller trilogy. The tough-as-nails persona the world sees belies the empathy and compassion she often displays during a case. Her razor-sharp intelligence coupled with her unmatched expertise as a criminal profiler has more than earned her the respect and admiration of her all-male homicide team. They are utterly devoted to her.

It begins when Superintendent Battaglia is summoned to the small village of Traveni in the Italian Alps to investigate the death of a local man. He was found naked with his eyes gouged out and his face disfigured—all done with someone’s bare hands. A carefully crafted effigy made out of sticks and rope and the victim’s bloodied clothing is close to the body. As she observes to her crew, “The effigy is a representation of the killer. He stood here contemplating his work and wanted us to know.”

She is interrupted by the tardy arrival of her new assistant, Massimo Marini, fresh from the city and very much the worse for wear. After a series of missteps en route, he arrives at the murder scene in his car towed by a tractor on perilous ice. To add insult to injury, he assumes the cop on the scene recording the license plates of every passing car, who is talking to an old woman he takes for a witness, is his boss. By the time he learns the woman is his real boss he is feeling like a complete idiot and all he can blurt out is:

“Nobody told me to look for a woman, Superintendent.”

She regarded him as if he were a piece of excrement stuck to the sole of someone else’s shoe.

“The thought never even crossed your mind, did it, Inspector?”

It’s not an auspicious beginning and as Marini will soon find out, Teresa Battaglia delights in stretching newcomers’ nerves to the breaking point. However, he also discovers that she won’t ask anyone to do anything she wouldn’t do herself and pushes herself to, and often beyond, her own limits. She fascinates him as much as she terrifies him. It’s the beginning of a challenging relationship.

Teresa is convinced that this murder is the start of a killing spree. There is the meticulous positioning of the body, the removal of vital organs, the carefully crafted effigy.  In her experience these ritualistic elements point to more bodies to come.

At the center of the story are the children: Lucia, Diego, Mathias and Oliver, age’s eight to ten. They bond together deep in the woods to exchange confidences. It is Diego’s father who is the murder victim. As Teresa delves further, she learns that he was an emasculating, emotionally distant father. Is his murder an act of vengeance? So far, the village is tightlipped, presenting a united wall of silence. They refuse to believe that one of their own could be a killer.  She has a deep sense of foreboding.

As if to echo her thoughts, Hugo Knauss, the local Police Chief, calls her to report that Lucia’s mother has been found by the girl severely disfigured and in a catatonic state. Next, the school janitor turns up skinned alive. When Mathias’s baby brother is abducted, Teresa is in a state of siege about who is behind it all:

Amid the awesome landscape, the insides of people’s homes in Traveni harbored unspeakable secrets. Teresa was disturbed by how many she’d already encountered.

Like looking for God and finding Satan and his horns, she thought.

Interspersed with the present day action, are horrific chapters set in an Austrian orphanage in 1978 that are meant to serve as a clue to the killer’s psychology. They also add to the overall mystique with the orphanage’s mantra of “Observe, record, forget.”

Ilaria Tuti’s Flowers Over the Inferno is a dazzling debut. It’s a skillfully crafted, beautifully written thriller with an unforgettable heroine. It will hold you in its chilling, atmospheric thrall from start to finish.

—Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.