Serial Murders and the Birth of Criminology in Turin

City of Devils: A Novel, by Diana Bretherick, (Pegasus Books), 464 pages

Diana Bretherick’s historical mystery, City of Devils, is a novel of characters, both real and invented, so I’d like to begin my review with brief descriptions of a few of them.

Among the historical characters, we have Cesare Lombroso and Dr. Joseph Bell. Lombroso, a major figure in the history of criminology, was convinced that criminals were born, not made. He claimed that different types of criminals had different physical characteristics and that one could determine whether or not an individual was a criminal by appearance alone. In the present day his theories seem ridiculous, but in his time, he was viewed as a major scientific figure. Bell doesn’t actually make a personal appearance in the novel, but as the main character’s mentor he is a psychological presence throughout. A 19th Century lecturer in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Bell is viewed as the founder of forensic science and was cited by Arthur Conan Doyle as being the inspiration for the character Sherlock Holmes.

The invented characters include James Murray, originally from Scotland and a student of Bell, who has traveled to Italy to study with Lombroso in order to avoid both personal tragedy and straightened circumstances. We also get several members of the two different law enforcement units charged with keeping Turin safe, and who are at constant territorial odds with one another; Sophia, a lovely prostitute-turned-housekeeper who works for Lombroso and provides the novel’s romantic interest (of course, there has to be a romantic interest); and Salvadore Ottolenghi, Lombroso’s chief assistant.

A series of murders springs up, coinciding with Murray’s arrival in Turin. The corpses are multilated, the mutilations inflicted on parts of the anatomy that Lombroso identifies as being useful for identifying “criminal types.” Each corpse also bears a paper with a message written in blood: “A tribute to Lombroso.” The leader of one law enforcement group is determined to pin these crimes on Lombroso; the representative of the opposing camp imagines the killer will be someone other than Lombroso.

As these descriptions of characters and situation make clear, City of Devils offers an interesting read, both in terms of history and of narrative. If you enjoy historical mysteries—and particularly if you’re interested in the early antecedents of today’s CSI-style labs—you’ll be kept engaged throughout the books rather substantial length.

Where this novel falls short is in the development of Murray, the central character. The reader would assume that, having worked first with Bell and now with Lombroso, Murray would be a figure of some intelligence—but over and over in this novel Murray is given clues he can’t identify. The this-rings-a-bell-but-I-can’t-remember-what-it-reminds-me-of move makes Murray come across as an inattentive, absent-minded figure, hardly the sort on would expect to find at the side of scientists like Bell and Lombroso.

And when those responsible for the killings are revealed this happens not through any deductions on Murray’s part, but via a summons to meet at a particular time and location issued by a killer and sent to Lombroso. In other words, Murray thinks about things, but doesn’t follow through on clues, and the culprits are identified through their own hubris and not through skilled detective work.

Bretherick is clearly leaving open the possibility of a return of Murray and further criminal investigations. Such works could be quite interesting—but only if Murray develops into a more intelligent, self-directed character.

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