>> Thursday, July 03, 2014
Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. That just about sums up talented mathematician Faith Murphy's life. After a disastrous one-night stand with hockey heartthrob Nick Rossi, she flees to a conference in Siena, Italy. She expected her Boss from Hell, Roland Kane, to be unbearable. She wasn't expecting him to be dead. A head injury has destroyed Nick Rossi's hockey career. Maybe if he hadn't been devastated and drunk, he wouldn't have seduced Faith Murphy. By the time he realizes she might be the woman of his dreams, she's run off to Siena.
It's Palio season in Siena. The Palio, a no-holds-barred medieval horse race, has the whole city in a lather. Nick knows Siena like the back of his hand. He knows he can get Faith back if he follows her to Siena. But there's the little matter of suspicion of murder in the way… Cops don't have time for murder in Siena during Palio season. Police Commissario Dante Rossi finds it hard to focus on murder when there's a horse race to be won. But when his cousin Nick shows up in pursuit of a pretty American who's the prime suspect, all bets are off.
NOTE: Dying for Siena was recently republished with a different title, Murphy's Law, and under the author's Lisa Marie Rice name. According to the description on amazon, it's been "extensively rewritten" and is "much sexier and funnier".
I've had Dying for Siena in my TBR for years, even since I read LMR's Midnight series and immediately bought her entire backlist. When I heard she'd written some books as Elizabeth Jennings, I bought those too. I had heard that this one didn't have much romance in it, so it languished for several years. I decided to pick it up now purely because of the setting. I recently had a really lovely holiday in Tuscany, which included a visit to the wonderful Siena, and fancied another little visit.
The story actually starts in the US, when Faith Murphy wakes up in a very hungover Nick Rossi's bed. Actually, Nick is pretty much still falling-down drunk, and between that and the fact that he's having some issues with a head injury he got while playing hockey, he can't quite say Faith's name. Faith is offended. This isn't a stranger hook-up; Faith is a good friend of Nick's sister Lou's, and she socialises with the family frequently. She up and leaves (immediately after which, of course, her name finally drops off the tip of Nick's tongue).
A couple of days later, Faith is in Siena. She's a mathematician, and the head of her department has asked her to replace a colleague in a Quantitative Methods seminar. Since it was all very last-minute, Faith hasn't quite finished her preparations, but when she goes to the department head's room to request some supercomputer time for data-crunching, she finds him dead. Even worse, Faith initially thinks he's merely dead drunk, so she makes the mistake of accidentally touching the murder weapon while checking to see if he's ok.
In a not-particularly-convincing coincidence, it turns out that the detective in charge of investigating the case is Commissario Dante Rossi, who just happens to be Nick and Lou's cousin. The cousins are really close, to the point that they spent summers together growing up, and Nick still visits Siena every year at the time of one of the Palios. And when Nick hears what's going on from Dante, and that Faith is a suspect, he's off to Italy like a shot.
That setup does sound like the romance is on the forefront, but it really isn't. Nick does hang around, "helping" Dante with the investigation and trying to protect Faith, who's not particularly open to his overtures, but the focus really isn't on the romance. It's definitely much more of a mystery and a story of a woman whose life is finally getting really good, after years of being put down. Not to mention a story where the setting is almost a character on its own!
Faith could have come across as a bit of a put-upon character. She's been working in a relatively junior academic post, and her supervisor (the murder victim) has been very efficient at claiming the glory for the excellent work she's been doing. She's also been nursing a bit of a crush on Nick, while he goes around womanising and not sparing her a thought, other than as his sister's nice friend. Two things keep her from being a martyr, especially on the work front. First, she really resents the situation, and it's one where I thought it was believable she'd be powerless to change it. And second, we meet her just as things begin to change and opportunities emerge for her to get the appreciation she deserves. She grabs those opportunities with both hands and great relish. As for Nick, she still likes him, but she's not going to be a pushover, now that he's realised he actually cares about her. For starters, she's too busy enjoying her now turbo-charged career, and she makes him feel that.
Something I particularly liked was that the stuff Faith and her colleagues are working on really did sound like the sort of thing mathematicians would do, or at least, what they would have been getting excited about at the time this was written. Such a refreshing novelty, after all those romances where the only defining characteristic of a mathematician is that they can do complicated artithmetic in their heads!
The mystery itself is serviceable, rather than great, but I thoroughly enjoyed the way the investigation of it brought loads of humour into the book. A while ago, when I posted about rereading Woman on the Run, an early LMR, one of my frequent commenters mentioned that something she thought was missing in late LMRs was the humour that was present in earlier books. Well, Fernande, I think you'd like this one.
Dante and his men are responsible for a lot of the humour. Actually, Dante ends up being just as important a character as Faith and Nick, and I was charmed by him. He's really annoyed that he has to investigate this murder (foreigners, typical!) right when more important things are going on. The Palio is about to be ran, and his side finally, after so many years, have a real shot at winning. His thought processes are just beautiful. It's sly, witty and charming humour, and I loved it. Loiacono, the Sicilian inspector who assists Dante deserves a special mention. He is hilarious, with his overeagerness and insistence on behaving as if he was in the FBI, not to mention his over-the-top use of titles (I didn't realise that was a Southern thing, I thought it was just an Italian thing in general. It makes sense, we in Uruguay got mainly Southern Italian immigrants, and that results in people calling me "Economist MyLastName" whenever I vist!).
I think what I liked the most about this humour is how it's done with great and very clear fondness. Dante and Loiacono are not made into ridiculous characters, and neither is the Italian way of doing things excoriated or ridiculed. I believe LMR has spent a lot of time living in Italy, and it shows. Based on the narration, I'd guess she loves the place and the people and admires a lot about it, while seeing clearly that there are things that are a bit surreal.
Finally, I need to say something about the setting. It was like going back to Siena for a while, which is exactly what I wanted. I loved it. As I mentioned, the action takes place right before the Palio, the famous horse race that takes place twice a year there, and with which so many Sienese are completely obsessed. That was one of the things our guide told us when we were there: Siena is quite a touristy place, which might make you suspect they do a thing like the Palio mainly for the tourists, but he said that was very much not the case. He said that the Sienese really, really care about it, and winning the Palio basically gives very coveted bragging rights to particular 'contrade' (these are different areas of the city, which compete against each other in the Palio). If this book tells even half of it, they certainly do take it seriously. There was this really funny scene when the medical examiner comes in and Dante thinks that he's not just a colleague, he's also an enemy, because he is... a Turtle! Yep, some contrade have pretty fierce names (Panther, Dragon, Eagle), but there are also Goose, Caterpillar and Porcupine! And our manly-men Dante and Nick are Snails! I loved it. Romance is too full of Dukes of Falconridge; where are the snails?
MY GRADE: A B+.