In The Last Castrato (Constable, 270 pages, $28.99 cloth), the University of Ottawa English professor John Spencer Hill has created a crime novel that engages the intellect and, at the same time, delivers the requisite dose of carefully plotted suspense. The story centres on the thirty-two-year-old Cordelia Sinclair, who arrives in Florence to complete research for her Ph.D. dissertation on the Camerata, a group of sixteenth-century Florentine composers important to the development of opera. In Renaissance opera, the soprano parts were sung by castrati, a crucial detail in the bizarre drama in which Cordelia is about to become a major player.
On the very day she arrives, the third of a series of murders has just been discovered, and the police are beginning to suspect that a serial killer is on the loose. In fact, Detective Inspector Carlo Arbati is convinced of it: all three victims have had their throats slashed in the same way-and the vocal chords of all three have been severed. What is the connection among the victims? Who is the killer, and what is his motive?
Hill delivers the goods when it comes to many of the expected conventions of crime writing. There's the idiosyncratic detective inspector (this one is a published poet), his reliable but unimaginative partner, the interesting setting, sub-plots to help keep the reader guessing, a cast of intriguing secondary characters-romance even! However, as entertaining as these all are, it is Hill's writing skill and infusion of what some might consider "academic" details (for instance, his use of a Botticelli painting as a recurring symbol of Arbati's fascination with androgyny) that mark this novel as something more than a detective story. As Hill himself has said: "My intention.was to bring together two genres-crime fiction and the `literary' novel. I wanted to unite the pace and suspense of the former with the interest in theme and character typical of the latter.." He has succeeded admirably.