The Vanishing Woman

By Fiorella De Maria

250 pages, $16.95

Ignatius Press, 2018

To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531

 

There are two main categories of detective fiction. The first is “hard-boiled,” in which the hero is a jaded law enforcement professional, usually a homicide detective or a private investigator. A gritty urban setting forms the backdrop, where filth and squalor are mere city blocks from the opulent mansions of the rich and powerful. Our world-weary detective has firsthand experience of human depravity and views the criminal underworld and the glitter of high society through the same cynical lens. He solves the case not by flashes of ingenuity, but by good, solid police work, and apprehends the perp only after a bloody and brutal final confrontation.

Fiorella De Maria’s latest murder mystery falls into the second category: the classic “whodunit,” which features an amateur sleuth who solves cases that baffle the local police. The setting is not a sprawling metropolis with a high crime rate, but a self-contained microcosm of gentility, such as a quaint village or island resort. In this idyllic world, murder is still a shocking anomaly. Acute powers of observation and keen insight into human nature guide the hero’s incisive reasoning. In the climactic scene, the murderer’s mask is stripped away. To the astonishment of all, it is always the person we least expect.

De Maria’s unassuming amateur detective is Father Gabriel, a Benedictine monk, assigned by his abbot to help out at a nearby parish. While he’s there, the most unpopular woman in the village disappears. According to the daughter, one moment her mother was walking up the path toward their cottage. The next moment, she was gone!

Then the body turns up — miles away from home.

The daughter’s eyewitness account provides a good variation on the “liar, lunatic or truth” conundrum that anyone who makes an outlandish claim must face. Despite heavy pressure to revise her story to something less fantastic, the daughter stands by her original tale. Some people think she’s lying. Others think she’s insane. But Father Gabriel knows better. He can’t explain exactly why, but “when a story is too improbable to be true,” he says, “it is quite likely to be true. There are so many eminently more sensible things she could have said.”

Like other classic amateur sleuths, such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Father Gabriel is more brains than brawn. He doesn’t solve this mystery by shooting the perp or beating the tar out of him. He solves the mystery using his “little gray cells.” In the process of unraveling the crime, he also unravels secrets that the village’s inhabitants would rather keep secret.

My only criticism is that I found myself floundering through the opening chapters with an uncertain sense of time and place, beyond a vague notion that the setting was sometime after 1943. Perhaps readers of the first Father Gabriel book (The Sleeping Witness, Ignatius Press, 2017) were able to jump right into this one and know exactly when and where the story occurs, but authors would do well to provide time stamps and placeholders as early as possible in all the volumes of a series in order to prevent confusion for readers whose first book read is not the first book written.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this story. Delightful red herrings abound: “What [the victim’s daughter] saw doesn’t make any sense,” Father Gabriel laments. “The location of the body doesn’t make any sense. Since absolutely everyone hated the victim, with one or two notable exceptions, everyone’s a suspect, and pretty much everyone might have had a motive.”

Exactly. That’s what makes classic detective stories so much fun to read.

The Vanishing Woman is no exception.

Clare Walker writes from Westmont, Illinois.