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Review: The Phoenix of Florence, by Philip Kazan
Allison & Busby, 2019. 349 pp. 15£

Onorio Celavini, one of sixteenth-century Florence’s two police inspectors (to use a broad term), has a typical case on his hands, or so it seems. Near a bridge, a man lies dead, the apparent victim of a gang attack, for he’s taken two of his assailants with him. Known as a seducer of other men’s wives, he’s unmourned in many circles, but as a wealthy, powerful aristocrat, his death matters to officialdom — more so when a well-born woman dies soon afterward, the crimes apparently connected.

Celavini has heard this all before and is sick of it; whatever a man has done, a woman winds up paying for it. But that’s life, in Florence or elsewhere, and orders are orders — solve this case, and quickly. So he bends his considerable skills to the investigation, aided by an enviable coolness in the face of danger, product of his years as a mercenary, and his knowledge of Tuscany and its politics, lessons that any successful soldier imbibes in the field.

Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of a condittiero, or mercenary captain, late fifteenth century (courtesy Samuel H. Kress Collection at the National Gallery, Washington DC, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, Celavini gets a surprise when he hears a familiar name associated with the crime, one he knew in his youth but had thought extinct. That brings these murders close to home. But though the investigator’s personal involvement is an old device, it’s different here. Unlike most mysteries, the real puzzle is Celavini himself, and The Phoenix of Florence tells a tale more of revenge than of who done it, more Count of Monte Cristo than Sherlock Holmes.

Don’t let that stop you, and don’t be surprised when the criminal investigation leaves off, and a long section of Celavini’s past takes over — for more than half the book. Kazan is less interested in who killed whom than in why men and women are the way they are, the greatest mystery there is. And I strongly suggest that if you let yourself follow his lead, you will be richly rewarded. Human nature, venal or honest, evil or benign, comes into full view, but the crux of the novel, I think, has to do with strength, weakness, and who perceives them, that perception often having deeper consequences than it should. What Celavini does with this provides both a satisfying story and a fitting ending.

It’s a brave author who departs for two hundred pages from the main narrative, and my regular readers may recall that I faulted Daniel Mason in The Winter Soldier for a much shorter digression. But much as I admire that novel and its author, he had a different purpose. Celavini’s past is the main story. I’ll say that it’s rather violent, so be warned, but I dare give nothing else away — The Phoenix of Florence tests this reviewer’s mettle — so I hope you trust me by now.

One way Kazan grips you, digression or not, is the prose. So many historical novels have been set in Florence (or Venice) that they’re practically a trope by now. But try this:

It was stiflingly hot, and the miasma of the dyeworks and the river mud had finally managed to creep into the house. The stench curled itself around me, ripe with rot and sharp with minerals, as clinging and insistent as the memories that wandered through the empty rooms, whispering in my ears. My nightshirt felt like a lead sheet and itched. When I sat down, the wood of the chair seemed to suck my skin. I went out into the courtyard, but the air was thicker there, and a rat was fidgeting around in the dry fronds of the date palm. At last I lay down on the flagstones in the kitchen and floated in a twilight where the cold stone brought relief but was painful as well; however, I couldn’t have one without the other.

I wish I could say more, but I shouldn’t. Read The Phoenix of Florence and be amazed.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.