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Posted on 31 Aug 2023 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

DV BISHOP The Darkest Sin. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Set in Florence in 1537, The Darkest Sin is the second novel featuring Cesare Aldo, an officer of the feared Otto di Guardia e Balia.

This series currently includes The City of Vengeance and The Darkest Sin, with a third volume, Ritual of Fire, on the way. The first two novels were deservedly longlisted in the Ngaio Marsh Awards for 2022 and 2023, and The Darkest Sin has won the 2023 CWA Historical Dagger Award. It is a series that depicts time and place beautifully, with a cast of characters who are engaging, flawed and believable. It’s also worth noting that there are elements of truth woven into the fictional narrative, exploring, in this case, the real-life conflict between convents devoted to care for the poor and needy and the corrupt Medici archbishop who wanted them enclosed and dedicated to nothing more than meditation and prayers. As the novel progresses it shows how the archbishop and the earthly powers he served were very keen to control those who could expose them.

The will to push back is something Cesare Aldo is strongly inclined to sympathise with. An unusual investigator, even for those times, Aldo lives on the fringes of Florentine society. Residing within a bordello gives him a community of women and friends that he’s comfortable with – not just because there’s a collective avoidance of religion, and societal norms.

Living in a bordello spared Cesare Aldo from religion most Sundays. While most of Florence went to church, Signora Tessa Robustelli and her women stayed in bed recovering from the night before. Once Mass was concluded, men would soon return to the humble building at Piazza della Passera, south of the Arno.

It also provides cover for a homosexual man in a society that, while fond of its excesses, still harboured some very ‘Catholic’ ideas at its core.

Warmer days meant less pain from his unreliable left knee, so it had no need of remedies or salves. But he still cut north into via dei Guidei, the narrow street where most of Florence’s small Jewish community lived. A door stood open among the houses on the left, beckoning him into the home of Doctor Saul Orvieto. How easy it would be to go inside. Aldo missed Saul, his warm hazel eyes, the ease of their friendship. But they had parted on bad terms, sundered by duty and bloodshed.

As in the first novel, The Darkest Sin uses events to explore communities. Here Cesare Aldo is sent to investigate reports of intruders at a convent in Florence’s northern quarter when a body is found deep within the complex, stabbed multiple times. That the body is male is almost a bigger shock than the murder itself for a community of nuns bitterly divided.

A man’s body was sprawled across the stones, naked and bathed in blood. More blood spread outwards from the corpse, pooling across the floor. Aldo had fought on battlefields, witnessing more death than he dared remember. But he could never recall so much blood around a lone corpse. It was … awash. Yes, that was the word. Awash with blood …

It was a frenzied attack. There was hate in this.

Meanwhile, Constable Carlo Strocchi returns to his home village to introduce his new wife, whom he has married after a rapid courtship, to his profoundly shocked mother, only to discover the body of a fellow Florentine officer they have been searching for. A man with many enemies, Cerchi was suspected to have run, because nobody can quite get their heads around the idea that somebody would kill an official from Florence’s most feared criminal court.

The buckle belonged to Cerchi, Strocchi was certain of that, but was it Cerchi’s body that had washed up on the riverbank? If so, that would solve the mystery of what happened to him. But how the missing officer’s body came to be in the Arno and whether Cerchi was dead or alive when he went into the water – that was another matter.

As with the first novel, Aldo and Strocchi set out to confirm the identity of their individual victims and why they were murdered as unconnected investigations, until they start to converge. This pattern works well as it creates a cooperative and almost equal working relationship between two very different men with complicated personal lives.

There are also a lot of personal connections between other characters in the novel – such as Aldo and 15-year-old Isabella Goudi, a student at the convent, who he is startled to discover is the daughter of his estranged half-sister Teresa. His boss Ruggerio instigated Aldo’s initial investigation into intruders at the convent, but the story appears to be more about his pressing need to cover up his own misdeeds, and the abbess of the convent (who, it turns out, is also Ruggerio’s sister) seems sceptical about it. In fact the abbess appears all too aware of the external forces being bought to bear on the convent’s work and on women in general.

‘There are few places where women can make choices without the presence of men. We do that here in our chapter house. Everyone’s voice is heard. For us, this is the important room in the convent.’

While these novels evoke the atmosphere of Florence in this historical period, they excel when it comes to the fringe communities. Aldo is a fringe dweller because of his sexuality, but also because of his place in his own family, and in society. An ex-soldier, now an officer of the Otto di Guardia e Balia, an organisation that is powerful and feared and one of a very few institutions willing, carefully, to oppose the absolutism of the Medici. Aldo is also an outsider in his own family, thrown out of home by his stepmother Lucrezia at 14 years old when his father died. His discovery of a step-niece within the convent, and her reasons for being there, aren’t all that surprising to him.

… Isabella muttered. ‘Well, I’ll not be bargained over like some cut of meat at the mercato. I won’t be a chattel for Mama and Papa to sell.’

Her parents were not the ones making the deal, Aldo knew. ‘Your mother said much the same to me, when she was your age. But Lucrezia had other ideas.’

In the convent itself, there’s a power struggle underway between the abbess, who believes in their mission of good works for the poor and abused, and the prioress, who leads a group of dissenters in favour of a closed order.

Not forgetting, of course, the death of the much disliked Cerchi. By this time the reader might be wondering if this is all a bit too much. However, Bishop’s skill in these novels lies in distilling a complicated plot into an engaging story with wonderful historical detail, a great sense of place and time, real characters who pop from the page, and more than enough twists and turns to keep readers absolutely enthralled. Obviously, this is a series that would be absolutely perfect for fans of historical crime, but there is much that’s explored here about the ‘othering’ of difference, the fight for autonomy and freedom from overbearing elites and religious zealots that will ring bells in the current climate. Enough to make you understand how much history does, indeed, repeat itself.

While it’s not a series that demands to be read in sequence, I’d definitely recommend commencing with The City of Vengeance if at all possible. Then we’ve all got until September to be ready for the release of Ritual of Fire.

DV Bishop The Darkest Sin Pan 2022 PB 448pp $22.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy The Darkest Sin from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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