“After all, how much trouble could a convent full of nuns be?” Cesare Aldo, an officer of Florence’s criminal court, is at first dismissive in his approach to the women of Santa Maria Magdalena. However, he soon realises they are varied, complex, and far from compliant. The victim’s body is cold but swamped in still-wet blood, there has been a theft of vestments, one of the nuns appears to have stigmata, and one in the convent might be a murderer.
The Darkest Sin is the second outing for Aldo, and those familiar with his first, City of Vengeance, will recognise many of the characters, including stinking, cruel, and treacherous early 1500s Florence. Carlo Strocchi, Aldo’s subordinate in the Otto court, is back – unlike the streetwise Aldo, Strocchi is “an honest son of the Tuscan countryside”, and we catch up with him taking his new wife, Tomasia, to meet his mother in his rural home village Pont a Signa.
Aldo’s love interest, Saul, is also back, and Aldo must try and bridge the estrangement from the end of the last novel, not least because he needs Saul’s medical help in his convent case. Meo Cerchi, Aldo’s fellow officer and enemy, who we also met in the last book, has been missing for some months. And there are new characters, like the delightful Isabella Goudi. Isabella is a day student at the convent, she is connected to Aldo, and she ends up helping with the investigation while she is seeking refuge in Santa Maria Magdalena.
Meanwhile Strocchi discovers a belt buckle in Pont a Signa that could be a clue to Cerchi’s fate, a clue that could provide Strocchi with an opportunity to advance in the Otto, and an opportunity for Aldo’s life to be ruined. The two cases run in parallel, both unearthing secrets that have led to death. On the one hand the reader knows what has transpired and the intrigue is how far Strocchi will get in his investigation. Will he follow his strict moral compass, or will he listen to his wife’s suggestion of shades of grey: “Tomasia would make an excellent officer, if the court ever allowed women such roles.”
On the other hand, in the convent, the reader is given plenty of clues and plenty of suspects. Apart from the mysteries, The Darkest Sin is enlivened by the conflicts of the time. There is the power struggle between the Church and the State (in the form of rich traders) – Aldo discovers there is a link between the victim and the Dominican friar Savonarola, who only a few decades earlier had ordered the bonfire of the vanities. The misogynist treatment of convents by the Church is covered, “the reputation of women rose and fell at the mercy of men, and that was doubly true within the Church”.
Aldo knows all too well the eagerness of the Church and State to exert power over private bodies – his lifestyle puts him in constant danger. The Church also exerts power over women’s minds. Aldo berates himself for his initial prejudicial behaviour towards the Abbess, “Too many men rushed to display their own wisdom rather than letting a woman reveal what she knew”. There is also division within the convent between those who want to serve the wider society and those who want to be enclosed to contemplate God. The Darkest Sin depicts that wider society, where women often seek refuge in convents from abusive relationships, or from the desires of families to use them as trade to improve the status of their houses.
The action of The Darkest Sin takes place during Holy Week, providing a time-limit on finding the solutions to both the mysteries. The plotting is good, and the reader is given plans of the convent, a cast of senior nuns and novices, and the occasional piece of evidence, such as a confession and testimony. The characters are compelling, the nuns all unique, and the community dynamics in the convent add layer upon layer of intrigue. Aldo and Strocchi dealing with their separate quandaries are well drawn. There is a pulling together of elements at the end, although readers of the Cesare Aldo mysteries know “Survival was enough of a triumph in Florence some days.” An excellent murder mystery, I thoroughly enjoyed it.