The old man’s face was pale gray and his eyes were closed. Agnes saw the glint of a long knife in Estanguet’s hand and she leapt forward. He saw her and flicked the blade toward Arsov’s throat. She halted, the element of surprise lost.
“He killed my sister,” Estanguet said. “Took the last family I had.”
The tiniest thread of blood appeared on the pale blue silk of Arsov’s pajamas. Agnes watched in horror as it blossomed across his chest. Agnes knew there was no time to reason with Estanguet. Arsov was too weak. She grabbed an antique bronze inkwell, took aim, and threw it. The metal struck Estanguet’s head, knocking him to the floor. The dagger flew from his hand. Seizing the opportunity, she lunged, but Estanguet scrambled to find his weapon and Agnes felt his hand come in contact with her ankle.
—Tracee de Hahn, Swiss Vendetta (Minotaur Books, 2017)
Some thoughts about this book:
- Here’s the setup (from Amazon): “Inspector Agnes Lüthi, a Swiss-American police officer in Lausanne, Switzerland, has just transferred to the Violent Crimes unit from Financial Crimes to try to shed all reminders of her old life following her husband’s death. Now, on the eve of the worst blizzard Lausanne has seen in centuries, Agnes has been called to investigate her very first homicide case. On the lawn of the grand Château Vallotton, at the edge of Lac Léman, a young woman has been found stabbed to death. The woman, an appraiser for a London auction house, had been taking inventory at the château, a medieval fortress dripping in priceless works of art and historical treasures. Agnes finds it difficult to draw answers out of anyone—the tight-lipped Swiss family living in the château, the servants who have been loyal to the family for generations, the aging WWII survivor who lives in the neighboring mansion, even the American history student studying at the Vallotton château’s library. As the storm rages on, roads become impassible, the power goes out around Lausanne, and Agnes finds herself trapped in the candlelit halls of the château with all the players of the mystery, out of her depth in her first murder case and still struggling to stay afloat after the [suicide] death of her husband.”
- I love a good mystery, as you probably know. And this locked-room mystery seemed to have promise. I wanted to like it. But, sadly, this wasn’t the mystery for me, for many reasons. Here’s the first one: Agnes Lüthi has just been transferred to the Violent Crimes division of the Lausanne Police Department from its Financial division. Right here, I’m already not believing it. Financial crimes are nothing like homicide! Her husband has been dead only a month, a huge snowstorm is in progress, and yet she is sent to the murder scene virtually alone (the village cop does manage to arrive to lend moral support, but he’s not a trained homicide detective either). Why?
- Other problems I had: many characters, many names, many backstories, all sorts of odd plot threads (not all of which tied up, though most did). One of the “rules” of writing myteries is the reader should be able to follow along and solve the mystery with the protagonist, but I didn’t find this to be true here. I was still wallowing in Arsov’s long-winded backstory, pages and pages of Lüthi’s grief, and a revelation about her dead husband’s motives that bore absolutely no relation to the story. (A book blogger says, “Her husband’s death is a big plot point in the book” but, um, no. It’s backstory, it affects characterization, but it’s not a plot point. This is a projected series, and this … thing … about the husband could have waited until the second or third book. In fact, I would posit that it would have had more impact if left to simmer for a while.)
- The dots just didn’t always connect. BookPage says: “Detective Lüthi’s insights are not always substantiated within the narrative, sometimes seeming to appear from offstage.” Exactly. And: “Coincidences abound,” Publishers Weekly says. (sigh) Elsewhere I saw it called a page-turner, but it took me way longer than it should have to read it because it wasn’t a page-turner—make of that what you will.
- Surprised at such a short sample (144 words)? There’s still a lot to see in it, aside from the clunky, awkward writing. “She halted, the element of surprise lost.” That second clause is telling (as in: show, don’t tell). “Agnes knew there was no time to reason with Estanguet.” That looks like telling to me too. Don’t tell! “Seizing the opportunity”—also telling. Really, don’t tell. “She grabbed an antique bronze inkwell, took aim, and threw it”: and in those moments she was taking aim, he didn’t have time to duck or dodge? Golly, what a coincidence! I might have been been able to buy it if “took aim” were eliminated from the sentence. There’s one more thing that wouldn’t be apparent unless you’d read the book: in the seventy years since “He killed my sister” and “Took the last family I had,” Estanguet has not bothered to have a conversation with the old man, Arsov, or anyone else who might have shed light on what truly happened (there’s at least one other character who could have). Estanguet was four years old when he parted from his sister, who was not killed by anyone but died of tuberculosis. This just seems like a very weak set of circumstances on which to hang an entire plot. (Said the editor.)
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