Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Family Tomb: Review

In Michael Gilbert's The Family Tomb (1969; aka The Estrucan Net) British expatriate Robert Broke finds himself in the middle of a far-reaching web of intrigue which has at its center the eccentric Professor Bronzini and Estrucan art. Broke left England behind when the British judicial system allowed the lorry driver who killed his wife and unborn child to get off with a mild fine for "dangerous driving" and has since spent his time running a rare book store in Florence. Broke is also something of an expert on Estrucan artifacts, having written a book on the subject himself. 

His involvement in the intrigue begins innocently enough when he accompanies his friend Commander Comber to home of Professor Bronzini for a modified Estrucan orgy--a night filled with wine, food, art, and, for those who taken themselves discreetly away, possibly other pleasures. Professor Bronzini invites Broke to come and look over the Estrucan tombs found on his property...tombs that the professors employees are currently involved in excavating. Broke takes him up on his offer and manages to spy what looks like a remarkable find in one of the rooms he's not encouraged to look into. Then an elderly craftsman by the name of Milo Zecchi who does work for both Broke and the professor becomes unaccountably worried. His assistant spies on him and two unsavory characters arrive on  the fast train from Rome at Florence station. Both are dressed in charcoal grey suits, carry bulging suitcases, and, although it is a warm summer evening, they are wearing gloves.

Zecchi finally summons enough courage to arrange to speak to Broke about what is on his mind, but he is fearful of being followed. So he makes an appointment to meet the Englishman where he believes they will be unobserved. But he never arrives. Before he knows what has happened Broke is arrested and charged with having run the old man down in his car. He knows he didn't do it and his friends rally round, but the evidence piles up against him. It's obvious he's being framed--but by whom? Why was the old man prevented from talking to him? And, since he didn't get a chance to hear what was on Zecchi's mind, why is still necessary to get Broke out of the way? 

Finding the police efforts to be entirely engaged in proving Broke's guilt, Commander Comber, Broke's housekeeper (and, incidentally, Zecchi's daughter) Tina, The British Consul, and his daughter Elizabeth (who incidentally has her eye on Broke) come together to discover the real killer of Zecchi and the plot behind the murder of an innocent old man and the framing of another innocent. Comber's investigations find connections from every quarter leading to the professor. But is Bronzini the real mastermind? Or is someone else using him as a blind?

The real delight in this book is the characters--particularly the women. There is Miss Plant, who is "in every sense of the word, the leading lady of the English colony in Florence." She is a throwback to an earlier era, when ladies went about with retinues who smoothed the way and saw that every need was met and every wish anticipated. She had been in Italy since the beginning of the century.

The accident that Italy had happened to be on the wrong side in the Second World War had not incommoded her at all....It was true that the Italian authorities, badgered beyond endurance by the Germans, and after exhausting every excuse for delay, had eventually agreed to take Miss Plant into custody as an enemy alien. The experiment had not been a success. She had allowed herself to be driven to the Questura, and had sat there upright, unmoving, and unspeaking, during the remainder of the day and the night following, acknowledging the arrival of evening only by elevating the umbrella she had brought with her. She had refused all food and drink. The thought that Miss Plant might actually starve to death, under umbrella, in his outer office had so unnerved the Questore that he had preferred to brave the wrath of the Germans, and had returned her to her villa under very nominal house arrest.

There is also Robert Broke's sister, Felicia who arrives on the scene to provide funds for a proper defense, having already arranged things with the Governor of the Bank of England--"Five minutes talk and the thing was fixed. I have found that men of intelligence usually see my points quite quickly." She assumes charge of proceedings "in the brisk way in which, Elizabeth felt sure, she had chaired countless Women's Institutes and Mothers' Unions." She also has set the British Consul straight on where his duty lies and when he starts quoting procedure and laws to her, tells him that she never thought she'd see the day that a British Consul would extol the virtues of Italian law. Commander Comber is awed by her decisive actions and the whirlwind methods of getting her way.

Put her in charge of the Navy, thought the Commander, and we might still have a few aircraft carriers.

And then there's Tina, who isn't about to let a couple Mafia-backed thugs get in her way when it comes to helping Signore Roberto and avenging her father. When she and Mercurio, Professor Bronzini's adopted son, are confronted by the men in a diner, she leaps into the battle with a pool cue. She "swung it carefully, like a golfer addressing a drive, and hit the stout man very hard on the back of the head, just above the point where his neck joined his skull." She is fearless and willing to do whatever necessary to free Broke and get to the bottom of the plot that killed her father. Gilbert has loaded this book with strong female characters who don't need a man to get things done. Not that Mercurio didn't hold his own in that fight--but it was not a case of him saving the damsel in distress.

The mystery plot is good, if a tad intricate and not quite as mysterious one might like in a crime novel. The real question is not who did it but how will his friends prove to the authorities that Broke is innocent...and, incidentally, provide evidence of the real crime in the process. The strength of the characters and the Italian setting really drive the star rating up to ★★★★ that would have been five if the plot had been a little less obvious.

With brown shoes on the cover, this counts for the "Object of Any Other Color" on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.


J F Norris said...

I have this very paperback edition! In fact, I bought a small pile of Gilbert books at the Rockford, IL Half Price Books outlet when they had a huge bag sale a couple months ago. So --if you'll forgive me -- I skipped down to the end and looked at your star rating and read only that last paragraph. With a four star rave from you I will be packing this book along with some choice others for the upcoming Alaska trip.

I've read two Gilbert books and I highly recommend THE KILLING OF A KATIE STEELSTOCK. Very impressive for a mystery novel published in 1980s when most crime fiction IMO was pretty mediocre.

Bev Hankins said...

John, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. AND...I have The Killing of Katie Steelstock somewhere on my TBR moountain range too.

fredamans said...

Sounds like it has some humor to it as well. Might have to look for this one!

Clothes In Books said...

He wrote such very varies books didn't he? And always enjoyable. Will look out for this one.

Bev Hankins said...

Moira, he did indeed. I haven't read a bad one yet...

Tarissa said...

Looks like a fascinating read! I do like a good mystery sometimes.