Red Riviera, by David Downie

If you’re a fan of Italy, mysteries, or well-drawn characters, don’t miss David Downie’s new novel Red Riviera. It sits on my virtual bookshelf right next to Commissario Brunetti (Donna Leon) and Inspector Gamache (Louise Penny), paragons of the genre.

Like the best of mysteries, Red Riviera has deep roots in the tumultuous past, World War II. The war was not kind to Italy, which had fallen under the spell of a bombastic leader who ended his war shot by partisans, his corpse hung by its heels next to his mistress.

Some of the people and much of the philosophy lived on. This book is the story of a talented police commissioner from Genoa, a woman rising toward the pinnacle of the police establishment at the same time she fears approaching spinsterhood, and her efforts to learn why a retired American spy, a native of Genoa, disappeared at the same time Canadair water bombers were trying to extinguish fires in the forests and brush overlooking the Ligurian Coast.

That’s not the only problem she has. HER vice questor is a couple of notches more diabolical than the one Guido Brunetti must deal with in Venice and he’s not convinced modern Italy is ready for democracy.

Daria Vinci is the headline character but the propulsive force of the story comes from two old men. The first Daria’s godfather Willem Bremach, born to wealth in Genoa, a Spitfire pilot turned Dutch diplomat, cold warrior, and best friend of Daria’s late father, an American.

The other is Joseph Gary, hedonist, former American spy and a man whose past, in Churchill’s words, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. After a long absence he has returned to the wealthy town of Rapallo, up the Italian Riviera from Genoa. For a couple of guys several years past their ninetieth birthdays they are bursting with energy — physical in Gary’s case, mental in Bremach’s while he is out of action from a tennis injury but not completely idle—watch for it.

I have admired David Downie’s books since I first found them a decade ago for their lively and realistic character development. His previous novel, The Gardener of Eden, was set on a broad stage peopled with varied and captivating characters, also with a historical element. The skill extends to his non-fiction books, of which there have been many. My favorite is Paris, Paris, which I still view as the best guide to Paris I have ever read, and I refer back to it frequently.

Red Riviera is set on the Ligurian Coast of Italy between France and Tuscany, part of which is known to tourists as the Cinque Terre (or “Sink-we Terry,” as Willem Bremach parodies the flocks of anglophone tourists who roost there during the tourist season). Some are barely tolerated guests of his wife in the elegant old house overlooking “the ancient olive trees and blackish-green flame cypresses planted by his grandfather on the terraces below.”

It is from this house that Willem, recovering from a tennis injury and confined to a wheelchair, spots Joseph Gary’s elegant antique speedboat moored in the sea below, as it is every day at the same time. But there’s no Joseph to be found, even after Daria starts her investigation, and it is in unwinding that mystery that Downie skilfully illuminates Italian society, politics, and the dark authoritarian strain that has hidden just below the surface of Italian life and government since Willem’s Spitfire was shot down along the same coastline in 1945.

I first saw Genoa in 2005, at the end of a repositioning cruise from Florida. I saw then, and you will as you read Red Riviera, that it’s a very old place. At one point when Daria is on the lam from police trackers she passes Christopher Columbus’s house—accepted history is that he was born in the area, and as our cruise pulled into the expansive port one of the guides pointed out a building which he said had been Columbus’s workplace before his voyages.

An old Italian city is full of old Italian churches, some better maintained than others but all worth a visit. I will never forget the first day we went church-hopping and it became clear to me where the gold from the New World went. It was on the walls of the churches.

David Downie is a native of San Francisco who now lives in Paris and Italy with his wife Alison Harris, a noted photographer. Together they operate Paris, Paris Tours. My sister and a group of friends visited Paris while we were there a few years ago and she allowed us to tag along on a couple of their tours, which were excellent and filled with Paris history.

Red Riviera, by David Downie. Alan Squire Publishing (June 25, 2021). 300 pages. Amazon editions: Kindle ($9.49), trade paperback ($19.99). (This review is based on a galley proof I received from the publisher.)

Reviewed on June 19, 2021