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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Burnt Siena by Sarah Wisseman

April 1, 2015

Five Star Publishing:  Farmington Hills, MI
2015 (pb)

Sarah Wisseman has previously penned four mysteries featuring archaeologist Lisa Donohue.  In this, her latest effort, our heroine is Flora Garibaldi McDougal, a feisty Chicago-bred art historian with a master’s degree from New York University and an inclination for getting in trouble.  In a sense, Burnt Siena complements the author’s earlier works in that it deals with the world of art and artifacts after they come out of the ground.  And, in fact, Lisa Donohue makes a cameo appearance in the story, giving Flora some much-needed guidance.

After completing a study program at the Uffizi in Florence, Italy, Flora has landed what might seem a dream job as a painting conservator at the Restauro Lorenzetti, an art restoration enterprise headquartered in the beautiful Tuscan city of Siena.  The company is headed by the estimable Beppe Lorenzetti and most of his employees are members of his immediate family and assorted shirt-tail relations, assorted hangers-on and a few “foreign” workers like Flora.  The Lorenzetti family has a distinguished pedigree in the world of Siennese art that goes back centuries.  The position with Restauro Lorenzetti proves not to be quite as fulfilling as Flora would have liked, mainly because of the rude, officious and suspicious nature of Pietro, one of Beppe’s sons, who runs day to day operations.  But crisis follows disappointment when, after a day’s work, Flora discovers to her horror the broken body of her roommate and fellow conservator Ernst Mann, who has fallen to his death from the balcony of their apartment, the victim of a deliberate push, not an accident or suicide.

What follows is a nightmarish adventure as Flora must first negotiate the labyrinthine world of Italian law enforcement, including the Polizia di Stato and the army-based Carabinieri, as well as the latter’s Rome-based division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.  She manages to convince the authorities of her innocence in Ernst’s death, but as developments unfold she comes to believe that the killer will be found among the Lorenzetti clan.  But which one?  Or are they all complicit?  And why?

Her dogged pursuit of those responsible for her friend’s death leads Flora into the murky world of antiquities smuggling and art fraud—and a brush with villains who would willingly have her join Ernst for eternity.

While the mystery is workmanlike in its execution, this book’s charm lies in its loving portrait of Siena.  The author beautifully invokes the sights, sounds and smells of that lovely city—its vital street life, the café culture of the Piazza del Campo, and even the anarchic madness of il Palio, the mid-summer horse races around the Campo in the city center.  The vividness of these word pictures is remarkable.  Indeed, in a very real sense, Burnt Siena is a love song to that city.

Three trowels for Sarah Wisseman’s first Flora Garibaldi art history mystery!