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shadows on the lake

9 december 2019

You can't really call a mystery with war, resistance, and Holocaust themes a "cozy," but Cocco & Magella's Shadows on the Lake gets as near to cozy as such fraught themes can venture.

Writers of mystery novels love buried secrets from the second world war: from Arnaldur Indriðason, Jo Nesbø, and Åsa Larsson in the far north to Zygmunt Miłoszewski in Eastern Europe to Andrea Camilleri in Sicily. In Shadows on the Lake, the window on the past comes, as often, in the form of a long-moldered body. Inspector Stefania Valenti catches the case of the disintegrating corpse found in the rubble of a cottage along the mountain path between Switzerland and Italy. To do the victim justice, she must pry into the secrets of some important living people.

Shadows on the Lake appeared in Italian (as Ombre sul lago) in 2013, but it seems to be set a few years earlier. The euro is the Italian currency, so it's 21st century, but technicians talk about "rolls of film," which doesn't seem like the 2010s. No matter. The approximate setting is what's crucial: long enough past the war that this is a very cold case indeed, but just plausibly still within the range of living memory of the war.

Stefania Valenti, a reader of Camilleri and, like his Montalbano, a commissario with unreasonable superiors and sometimes feckless assistants, tackles the cold case with relentless will. Nothing about the police procedure rings very true, I have to say. No detective unit would spend much time on a 70-year-old corpse. The detection involved is sometimes archival, but mostly consists just asking very old people for information, which they eagerly cough up.

One keeps waiting for a twist. Stefania is divorced, a single mom, and she starts to date a man who has a tangential interest in the case. One rule of Krimis is that when our hero(ine) gets involved with somebody related somehow to his/her case, that love interest must be either a sidekick or have guilty knowledge. Sometimes both; both is awesome. Is it a spoiler to say that there is no twist? A crime novel without a twist seems so original that it's a shame to reveal the lack of one.

Shadows on the Lake is a readable book with appealing characters, but seems more than usually a straight historical novel recast as a mystery. The older characters' recall is too perfect; the present-day investigators are too adept at spinning a narrative from scraps of clues. But the story they tell, of the expropriation and betrayal of Jews, of the fortunes made in the perfidy of war, rings true enough at this great distance to be worth telling.

Cocco, Giovanni, and Amneris Magella. Shadows on the Lake. [Ombre sul lago, 2013.] Translated by Stephen Sartarelli. New York: Penguin, 2017. PQ 4903 .O34O4313