Wednesday, October 24, 2018

WHEN TIME RUNS OUT – Elina Hirvonen

At last I have identified the whispering voice that encouraged me throughout my reading of When Time Runs Out. It took a day after I read Finnish author Elina Hirvonen's short novel to understand just how this voice was able to mitigate the novel's grim implications, allowing its dreary narratives to hold me captive without a scintilla of hope promising an affirmative conclusion.

The voice was Walker Percy’s, and the leavening it offered was the message of Percy’s quasi-satiric apocalyptic novel Love in the Ruins. I should have caught on at the start, as each novel begins with a man and a rifle on a high spot overlooking a kill zone. Both men see themselves responding to a society at the verge collapse. Other than this single notion they’ve essentially nothing else in common.
The novels themselves offer moments of humor. In Ruins, the humor is sly, in keeping with Percy’s naturally droll take on human foibles. But the laughs in Time are unfortunate and inadvertent (I presume), occurring only with the sniper’s name, Aslak, which tickled my giggle trigger every time I came upon it, hearing my earworm imitate that annoying TV duck trying to sell me some sort of insurance--paradoxically an icon of the commercial quackery Aslak blames for his stand on the Helsinki rooftop with his rifle. Ultimately it’s Percy’s more insightful understanding of human nature that sets Ruins apart from the myopic surface tension driving the Finnish novel.
We see Aslak through three lenses: his self-perception and in the minds of his mother and older sibling. None seem aware Aslak, who is twenty-seven on the day he becomes a sniper, clearly is autistic. Neither the word nor a diagnosis pointing to the neurological disorder is ever mentioned, despite his parents having taken him to various therapists in his early years. No one gets past the obvious conclusion something is “wrong” with him. Eventually Aslak turns this wrongness around and pins it on society:
I am drowning in this shit. Everything is polluted. The whole of Western culture is just one hedonistic performance. The civilization we’re so proud of died a long time ago. Our only religion is the belief that we have the right to everything we want. The only human right is the human’s right to consume. That right destroys everything.

A crowning irony in this statement, part of a diatribe he delivered in a video police made while communicating with him on the rooftop, is how closely these ideas mirror those of his environmentalist mother, Laura, whose lectures warn of commercialism’s threat to the planet. Yet, she holds out hope: What looks now like an inevitable move towards the destruction of humanity may develop in unexpected directions. We may create versions of the future, imagine alternative worlds, new visions; one of them may one day come true. But we cannot be certain. The power of humankind may surprise us not only in destructiveness and selfishness, but also in wisdom, reason and the creation of the new.
His sister, Aava, who shares their sensibility, has taken a different approach. She’s become a physician who wanders the globe administering her skills to people in the direst of Third World places. She’s in Mogadishu when news arrives of her brother’s involvement in a worldwide series of random murders its disaffected loner perpetrators call “gobal genocide,” organized online by a masquerading right-wing fanatic who claims his aim is the “culling of the human race until man can live in harmony with nature.”
Aava’s approach is more personal, trying to “do everything as well as I can, because the only meaning is in what I can achieve.
My tears and my nightmares do not help anyone,” she tells us. “My pain is the angst of the privileged. The small minority that has grown accustomed to thinking that dreams can be realized, and if that doesn’t work, you can demand better.”
Their father, Eerik, is engaged similarly, constantly traveling worldwide designing projects to revitalize ruined landscapes into public recreational and cultural facilities.
Their youthful ideals brought Laura and Eerik together, and strong sexual attraction united them. But the primal pooped out and their mutual affection atrophied. Eerik was away a lot, putting on Laura the greater share of parenting their two children, which she’d agreed to have only because Eerik wanted them. She had a two-year intensely physical affair with a lover described only as a “wiry-haired man.” With her husband remote, their grown son a stranger and their daughter gone, she’s miserable.
Of the three viewpoints we have, Aava’s comes across as the healthiest, and perhaps the most modern. Yet, it, too, falls short of happiness. Her relationship with Gerard, a French diplomat’s son, is tepid. Their sex is more habitual than inspired, meeting merely a temporary need. She sees no future with him or anyone else, seeing such long-term matings ending as dismally as her parents’. “I yearn for another person’s skin and the demands of his touch, not a life partner,” she says. “The mere thought of couples’ dinners, date nights or working at a relationship makes me feel ill. I want to work for starving children, not at a relationship languishing for lack of passion.”
Elina Hirvonen
Missing from these people is a sense of community, even in its most basic form, as a family. Cohesion is arbitrary, and any semblance of spiritual connection illusory.
I can’t tell if this was the author’s intention. If so, she’s captured what too often seems a general malaise of our time. Yet, all she offers, via her three vocal characters, is the foggy yearning for hope. Hope is never indicated beyond material needs, assuming safety, a hot meal, sex, and a sturdy bed. What more does anyone need? She seems to suggest something else in the epigram that leads off the first of the novel’s five divisions. It’s by Susan Sontag from her book Regarding the Pain of Others:
Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, October 18, 2018

IN THE BALANCE – Patricia Wentworth

We are told by those presumably wiser than us that first impressions are hard to shake, that they tend to sink their claws into the heart with an indelible vengeance, refusing to let go despite the force of logic sprung from overwhelming contrary evidence. All too disastrously often it explains the expression “love at first sight” and, in voting unimaginable authority and power to a stranger, “I liked the cut of his jib.”

In this vein I find myself wondering how the course of my literary tastes might have progressed had the first sentence of the first paperback my long-ago little self plucked from the bookcase next to my father’s reading chair been Miss Maud Silver looked along the crowded platform and felt thankful that she herself was in a through carriage, instead of The guy was dead as hell.

My father’s modest collection of mysteries did include some by women. I remember seeing the names Eberhart and Christie, but it was the Korean War and I wanted to grow up to be a soldier and the only soldiers I knew were men and with this tidal wave of serious manliness pounding against my puerile sensibility is it any mystery Mike Hammer reached out and took command? Miss Silver wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Today in my platoon she’d have Hammer on the floor doing pushups while her knitting needles clicked cadence. It’s quite possible that if the first sentence I’d read back then had been from In the Balance I might in later years have paid closer attention in Latin and math, imagining those elderly ladies secretly solving murders as a sideline.
I can’t say if Miss Bolte was a knitter, but I can easily see her sitting in a train compartment miles away from veni vidi vici, expertly working her shiny steel needles through the purls and knits and slips of a woolen jumper for her niece when her next client comes crashing through the door babbling in a state of terror. The client, still in shock after overhearing a conversation that seemed to indicate her husband of six months was planning to kill her, confides in Miss Bolte, trusting her in part because, frumpy and prim, she looks and speaks like a retired governess. Miss Bolte certainly did fifty years ago when I knew her, altho her teaching was in Midwest classrooms filled with students, and she very likely never entertained fearful newlyweds on trains bound for London, as did her fictional counterpart, Miss Silver. And had she found herself in such a circumstance, it is highly doubtful Miss Bolte’s perception would have included a ratiocinating bent of the sort to observe of the frightened damsel, “This is a London train. You would not be going to London without any gloves if you had not come away in a hurry. And they are not in your bag. That flat envelope shape would not close upon a pair of gloves without bulging.”

To herself, Silver notes that her compartment mate is “a normal creature shocked into a temporary abnormality,” so with the cat thus out of the first-appearance bag, Miss Silver confirms her Sherlockian interest by handing the fellow passenger her card when they disembark at the London station: MISS MAUD SILVER Private Investigations Undertaken. 15 Montague Mansions, West Leaham Street, S.W.

At this point we leave Miss Silver and follow Lisle Jerningham, the young newlywed, to Tanfield, the massive estate that’s been in her husband’s family half a millennium and has become such a money hole the husband’s had to marry wealthy wives to keep from losing it (oh, yes, Lisle Jerningham’s a rich American). The husband’s first wife died when she fell off a cliff in a presumed accident, uh huh. Lisle finds Tanfield an unwelcoming place, with her cold, controlling husband and his two cousins, who are staying there as guests, regarding her condescendingly as if watching a sacrificial lamb on the verge of another Tanfield fatal accident. Indeed, Lisle narrowly escapes death in two such accidents.

She comes across as something of a ninny, naively giving her husband the benefit of doubt after doubt, believing what they have between them is true love. She even has a last will and testament drawn up leaving the bulk of her estate to her husband. I found myself shouting a couple of times, “You damned stupid IDIOT!!”

Lisle’s creator, Patricia Wentworth, masterfully tortures us with Lisle’s incrementally more insightful glimpses of the situation only to pull her back into her thumb-sucking, trusting cocoon. Wentworth even lets Lisle reach a point where she contacts Miss Silver and agrees to meet her, but then changes her mind and cancels the appointment. STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!...I shouted until the next-door neighbors began banging on the wall. And then…

And then a minor character wearing a fancy coat Lisle had given her moments before falls or jumps or is pushed off a cliff to her death. Those with motive and opportunity to push her include the husband and his cousins, all who just happened to be in the vicinity at the time and who might have noticed only the coat, not who was wearing it.
Enter Miss Silver once again. She reads a newspaper account of the apparent accident at Tanfield. She heads up to the nearest town. A former student, Randal March, is the investigating officer:
It took Randal March a long way back to a schoolroom where a little inky boy and two much tidier little girls had absorbed instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic from a Miss Silver who must in those days have been a good deal younger than she was now, but who never seemed to him to have changed in any way with the passage of years. Kind, dowdy, prim, intelligent—oh, very intelligent—and firm.
She clues him in. He appreciates her background and advice. Could he have caught on to the truth without her? Do they save Lisle from yet a third attempt to murder her? Are we happy with the ending?
I don’t recall reading any other mystery novel where the narrative focus is on the victim while the plot gathers like a boa constrictor around the prey. I probably have read such novels, but the only story that comes to mind is Dial M for Murder, the movie. I found In the Balance more gripping than the usual detective story, probably because I tend to identify with the protagonist—in this case Lisle, albeit Miss Silver’s supportive role is essential as, if nothing more, than a savvy accidental ally.
In the Balance (originally Danger Point) is the fourth in her thirty-two-novel Miss Silver series. I very likely will be reading others.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


Sunday, October 14, 2018


I've read only two novels about my hometown, both by Susan Paré. The only other one I know of, rumored to be a satire about one of my high school English classes by the teacher, was never published (I hope). I ran into the teacher several years later and he snickered when I mentioned the rumor, but didn't deny it. I've not seen the manuscript.
Decades later, merely learning of Paré's The Mayor's Son caused one of my eyebrows to arch—something I cannot will it to do altho I've tried many times. Paré was four years ahead of me in school and I didn't know her, but a cousin dated her younger sister and her younger brother dated my sister. Prime sources for a devious novelist. So, having actually been the mayor's son back then I had no choice but to read the book. Forced myself to read the book, and...and...whew! Deeep deep breath. My fears for naught. Paré’s mayor's son and mayor resembled neither me nor kin! No embarrassment. Great fun actually. Gave me an excuse to dig out the old high school yearbooks to see if any of Paré's classmates or other townies had appeared thinly disguised in her book. None I could say for certain, but I recognized many names.
It is possible some of the characters’ personalities matched their namesakes. But I’d read Lawrence Block’s autobiographical Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, and knew all about the fig leaf of legal boilerplate and artistic license and that changing names “to protect the innocent” really means to protect the author and publisher from lawyers. Same with using names fictitiously. I’ve a hunch, tho, most of Paré's acquaintances who might recognize themselves in her novels, either by name or reputation, are tickled pink. Maybe not the fictitious mayor and mayor’s son. Maybe they really were cut from whole cloth, or were so nasty in life even the hungriest lawyer would laugh with disgust at their depictions, and send them away.

Two weeks ago came The House on Ludington Street. My misgivings this time eased by relief from The Mayor’s Son, I wasn’t nearly so cautious approaching the new book, altho I grew up in a big old house that cornered on Ludington. Curiosity pulled me in. I read Ludington last week, and the whew this time when I reached the end was the kind that caps one helluva fun ride.
Once again out came the high school yearbooks with their dusty, faded nostalgia tickling poignant memories from the long-ago faces and names, silly inscriptions. Hundreds of fragments vying for the focus that could summon forgotten stories back to life. Too late now, tho, with Poop’s grandfather seizing control with a narrative richer and more compelling than any I might find locked in the vault of my subconscious archive. It’s a story about corruption, prostitution, grisly murders, a secret tunnel, and a ghost. It’s about my hometown, but not a town I ever knew. I know it’s my town only because I know the names and the places. Especially the house on Ludington Street, which I’d seen often, but only from the outside.
Susan Paré
I even knew Poop, but as John, and the only Whitey I remember was in Susan Paré's class. During my brief acquaintance with Poop I’d thought he was closer to my age. He moved away shortly after his father died in a highway accident. Unless memory’s playing a trick here, I recall John telling me a strange story around the last time I saw him. He was a mischievous fellow, and I thought at the time he was pulling my leg. Now, half a century later, I’m pretty sure John’s tale was something about a secret tunnel.
In The House on Ludington Street, John tells his buddy Whitey about a secret tunnel. Whitey reacted about the same as I did, except he laughs, while I just nodded and filed it away in my head under “tall tales.” In the novel, John has gotten the idea from his grandfather, and when he and Whitey ask him about it the old man gives them much more than they’d hoped for. The story cleverly unfolds in chapters coinciding with Grandpa needing breaks for meals and rest. At one point the boys actually persuade Police Chief Austin to let them hunt in the city hall basement for an entrance to the rumored tunnel. If you think I’m going to give you for free what happens next, you should know my dad had the real Chief Austin lock me in one of the City Hall jail cells once just to let me feel what it was like. The door slammed shut, and they left the room. I was alone in there about fifteen minutes. It seemed like hours, and I learned the meaning of claustrophobia.
Late at night sometimes my dreams take me back there, and I feel the presence of ghosts in that cell. I don’t want to get them mad at me for giving away their secrets! 
 Image result for columbus wisconsin city hall images 

Thursday, October 11, 2018


A crime novel by George Bellairs when he was young and sweet and innocent? Blimey, as his British peers probly said back in the day. But that would have been for his later novels, when he was old and curmudgeonly. I started his Inspector Littlejohn series with the later novels, when Bellairs had become snarky and even nasty in his outlook toward people, making fun of most of his characters in ways that would have made their mothers cry. Being old and curmudgeonly myself, I rather enjoyed most of these verbal caricatures, except when Bellairs’s cartooning pen went for cheap sniggers at the expense of certain minorities, such as Jews and gay stereotypes.
After two such novels, however, in which so many potential suspects could be eliminated because of their harsh treatment by Bellairs, leaving me to focus on the few ordinary characters for murdering motive, opportunity and means—relatively easy peasy--I was about to give up on further adventures of Scotland Yard Inspector Littlejohn—in part also because Bellairs portrayed Littlejohn as little more than a name, with no physical description or personality. But a comment by blogger John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books acquainted me with an earlier Littlejohn mystery he described as, “a real detective novel with a plot that was baffling and engaging. It's a wartime mystery and it dares to break free from the ‘rules’ and detective novel conventions that make it a standout for Bellairs.” So I downloaded the Kindle version of The Dead Shall Be Raised, and agree with everything John said. Plus I now have a better impression of Inspector Littlejohn and some really fine description of the English north country where the story takes place.

We learn that Littlejohn is a “large” man, with no other physical description, but this is more than we’re told in The Case of the Seven Whistlers and Intruder in the Dark, published in 1944 and ‘56 respectively. His wife’s name—Letty—is all we’re given about her in these two novels, altho from his mention of needing to call her occasionally it’s apparent he holds her in high regard. In The Dead Shall Be Raised (originally titled Murder Will Speak), which came out in ‘42 and is set in 1940 during the Nazi bombings of England, we learn early in the first chapter just how high the regard:
No-one but his wife could have persuaded Littlejohn to make such a trip on Christmas Eve. One November night, he had arrived home to find all the windows of his Hampstead flat smashed and the roof blown-in. Far worse, his wife, Letty, was a casualty at the local hospital. Luckily, the worst that German frightfulness had done to her was to cause superficial cuts and slight concussion, but the detective, tied as he was to duty owing to the stress of official work, did not feel happy until he had packed her off to a quiet area.

He’s taking leave to visit Letty in Hatterworth, where she is staying with a friend from her schooldays. His train arrives at the station nearest Hatterworth too late for the bus to that town, but is met by Hatterworth Police Superintendent Haworth, whose wife is Letty’s friend.
Next evening, while all are gathered at the Methodist Church where Haworth is part of the choir performing its annual Messiah concert, a human skeleton is unearthed on the nearby moorland by Home Guardsmen digging a trench. News of this find unrealistically interrupts the concert, sending Haworth and Littlejohn back to the station, where Haworth slips on the icy steps, and sprains his ankle. Littlejohn graciously accepts Haworth’s invitation to supervise the investigation into the twenty-three-year-old murder case unearthed with the bones of the man assumed to have disappeared after presumably killing his one-time best friend over a girl.
Littlejohn’s job is complicated by the dearth of locals still alive who knew the two men and were familiar with circumstances of the case. He’s aided by two former police superintendents—Haworth’s father-in-law and his father, both honorably retired and living nearby. The narrative picks up speed once the game is afoot, and soon the murder of a potential witness in the case makes it clear the killer of at least one of the two rivals is still alive.
Emphasis of the investigation is procedural, with not much whodunnit mystery, as the list of plausible suspects has shrunk over the years, and not much howdunnit, as the first two victims obviously were shotgunned and the third obviously poisoned. The mystery is whydunnit, and without the typical sleight of hand many fictional mysteries deploy to confuse police and readers alike, I found Littlejohn’s incremental discoveries of motive and circumstances leading to the three murders more realistic.
Bellairs goes much easier on the caricaturing in The Dead Shall Be Raised, altho his keen eye for detail is well displayed—sometimes just with a name, such as the Rev. Reginald Gotobed, pastor of Hatterworth Methodist Church. At least Gotobed didn’t have the “fruity” voice of the minister in Intruder or the “oboe” voice of his counterpart in Whistlers.Albeit with only three of the fifty-eight Littlejohn mysteries read, I am getting the impression Bellairs perhaps has some sort of  colorful history with clergy.
He gives a glimpse of his later caricaturing with this portrait of Bill o'Three-Fingers, a drunken vagabond who plays a brief but intriguing minor role: “He was an unpleasant-looking customer. A general look of disproportion about his face. His mouth, nose and eyes seemed pushed too near the top of his head. Long, broken nose, weak, receding chin, loose mouth with yellow, broken teeth and a long, sloping upper lip. Like a grotesque tailor’s dummy, constructed with freakish features to attract passers-by.”
Another minor character, the girl whose affections split apart a friendship that ended in their deaths, is described twenty-three years later as, “fat and ungainly, with straight bobbed hair, badly cut, as though some amateur had put a basin over her head and clipped off all not covered by it. A round face, with healthy cheeks, grown puffy, and dark, placid eyes, with a look combining innocence and ignorance. Her figure had gone altogether. Heavy limbs, protruding stomach, great breasts flopping beneath her dress. A hard-working woman, weary with child-bearing and gone to seed before her time. She had five children and her husband was a plumber.”
Bellairs goes easier on Mother Earth. Here he rhapsodizes on Hatterworth as he approaches the town:
...built of local stone, [it] seemed to fit snugly in the general scene. Its long rows of three-storied cottages, its public buildings, chimneys and towers and its open-spaces were ranged along a lower highroad which, from the hillside, seemed a mere thread winding into the distance...In the distance, the white smoke of a train, laboriously mounting the ridge into the heart of West Riding.

And this: “The vast, cold moor was a rare place for holding secrets. A silence seemed to brood over it, punctuated now and then by the cries of birds or the shouts of the Home Guard, still maneuvering vigorously. Even the presence of so many men over the wide expanse seemed powerless to dispel the loneliness. The creeping fingers of the powers of destruction worked unseen, twisting and stunting the vegetation, tearing down the boundaries erected by man, shattering his habitation and sliding relentlessly over fields he had cultivated, dragging them back to the wilderness.”

But then a glimpse of crystalline beauty, with Superintendent Haworth singing his Messiah solo: The busy chapelkeeper opened one of the doors leading from the vestibule into the main street and the exquisite aria floated out into the still Christmas night and seemed to ring across the moorland beyond.
The Dead Shall Be Raised is a short novel, or perhaps a novella, packaged with Murder of a Quack, another short one published the following year. I had intended to read only the first, but I liked it so much I’ve decided to read the other. Not wishing to compete with Yvette Banek of In So Many Words for the title of most Littlejohn mysteries blogged, I just might keep my impressions of that one to myself. We shall see.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Saturday, October 6, 2018


As you may recall, Daniel Webster won his debate with the Devil after a long, arduously cunning verbal struggle. Norman Mailer's attempt to repeat the Webster victory, holding forth for the Existential outlook, would have managed only a draw—had I finished the parody I started in college and abandoned when understanding I'd actually have to study Existentialism not merely indulge in its chemically induced illusory semblance in order to give Mailer a fighting chance. I was "chops challenged," as I learned to euphemize much later in politically correct vernacular.

Comes now something a tad more practical and, probably because of its practicality, vastly more interesting: A debate between a snarky atheist midwife named Tessa Testerman and a rather wimpy, guilt-ridden archangel named Maritenael, a name Testerman can't pronounce, so changes to "Martin."

No...Absolutely, no,” Testerman instantly responds, interrupting Martin's description of a sacred relic he's ordered her to recover. The archangel had appeared to her after an exhausting delivery. She assumes she's hallucinating.

The angel stops speaking. He “resembled a generic Christmas tree ornament, with a white robe, a gold sash, and angular features...trim black hair and black eyes so focused they looked fierce.

"She tilted up her chin to glare at him. 'You can leave me alone,’ she says. ‘I’m not retrieving this relic. We’re done.'”

He says, “This is the second time you’ve refused.”

'Then that makes both of us who can count to two.' Tessa folded her arms. 'I said no the first time, and I meant it.'”

She accuses him of being a hallucination, and tells him to vanish, "or whatever it is hallucinations do.”
Image result for archangel raphael

Martin insists he's real.

"Tessa turned, hands on her hips. 'You’ve shown up twice, both times after long births, both times at three o’clock in the morning. You didn’t turn up at an hour when I’m not exhausted and high on someone else’s birth endorphins. If that’s not a hallucination, then what is?'”

Martin admits she's more vulnerable after a delivery, "more willing to accept the impossible."

'And that’s how I know you’re a hallucination,' she retorts. 'Now if you don’t mind, I need to drive home without trees dancing alongside the road. Excuse me, please.'”

He blocks the doorway. Asks how he can prove to her he's an angel.

"She huffed. 'If you’re really an angel, tell me the time of the next birth I’ll attend, plus the gender of the baby.'”

He does so, with precise details including an odd spelling of the baby's name. Four days later Noe (pronounced Noah) is born as predicted, and Martin reappears. Testerman acknowledges his angelhood, but she's no pushover for harps and halos. Before allowng any game to be afoot, the midwife has a demand of her own. It seems a bill is pending before the state legislature that would allow insurance companies to deny paying for birthing procedures not conducted in licensed hospitals. Its passage would put midwives out of business. Therefore, Testerman proposes, if Martin would use his angelic powers to help defeat the bill, she would try to find and recover the sacred relic.
Image result for tom hanks in a dress

Were Dan Brown the author of Relic of His Heart, guaranteed, of course, to be another vehicle for Tom Hanks (this time presumably in midwife drag), Testerman would abandon her husband and five sons to hit the global airways gallivanting from one clue to the next, dodging demons at every step, until at last she'd have the relic in hand and could return home to her midwifery, safe from the restrictive legislation miraculously defeated despite the powerful hospital lobby, and into the forgiving arms of her loving, mother-knows-best family.

Fortunately, for me anyway, the author is Jane Lebak, whose lightly irreverent sense of humor and joie de vivre keep a potentially grim, implausible, horror-riven thriller sensibly grounded and morally sound yet irresistible. Not an easy thing to do with an archangel co-protagonist constantly bouncing back and forth in time who takes to heart quite literally the expression “God-fearing,” reluctant as he is to approach the Father directly for any reason, such as seeking permission to reveal his own name to Testerman.

Martin suffers celestial-grade guilt for having dropped the ball, so to speak, when, during his tenure as guardian angel of the Church of the Holy Cross in Barlassina, Italy, soldiers, enraged by an Italian partisan sniper’s shooting at them, burned the church to the ground and stole the relic, to boot. The angel had been off attending to some other, apparently less important duty, and blames himself for “losing” the church and the relic—a beautifully designed golden reliquary containing a microscopic piece of the heart of St. Peter of Verona taken from the tip of the assassin’s sword that martyred him. Martin also blames himself for, at the same time, not preventing a G.I.’s accidental fatal shooting of Testerman’s Great Aunt Alicia. The relic must be returned to the town to appease the two controlling, feuding families—the Monterosas and the DiOrios—so the church can be rebuilt.

Testerman is a DiOrio, which Martin counts on to spur her into hunting down the relic. Fortunately her husband, Gary, is a freelance writer enthralled by the situation, and researches that period for stories he sells to national publications. Hey, this would be the part for Tom Hanks, and he wouldn’t even have to wear a dress! The midwife’s relatives contribute letters from family in Italy to help round out the picture. One of Gary’s stories had the effect of kicking a hornet’s nest in Barlassina. Threatening letters arrive, but one tells him how carefully he’d balanced the story: You will be pleased to note that some of the smaller-minded among us actually sat down and counted the number of quotes you provided from the Monterosas versus the DiOrios, and they’re furious that you made it exactly even.

Gary tracks down those veterans still alive who’d been in the platoon blamed for burning the church, shooting Alicia, and stealing the relic. He gets the story way will I reveal the secret of the missing relic! That’s your job. Do Tessa and Gary actually go to Barlassina? Of course they do, but why and when and what happens when they get there? Something else for you to wonder about. I won’t have the Monterosas and DiOrios sending me any hate mail, grazi!