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Book Review: Murder Under the Tuscan Sun by Rachel Rhys

Book Review: Murder Under the Tuscan Sun by Rachel Rhys

With its sinister atmosphere, breathtaking scenery, web of secrets and its characters’ ever-deepening suspicious behaviour, Rachel Rhys’ Murder Under the Tuscan Sun delivers both an exhilarating, sun-soaked mystery read and a compelling dose of escapism, all wrapped up in one easily readable package. From its opening chapters right through to the final pages, this novel expertly peels back the layers of glamour, wealth and beauty to reveal the darker, uglier reality underneath, and it simmers with the kind of slow-burning tension that keeps readers turning pages and gripped to the story at every turn.

Following the death of her daughter and her husband, grieving Constance Bowen seizes the opportunity to experience something new when she takes up a post in Florence as a companion for a man who is recovering from a cerebral haemorrhage. Against her son’s wishes, Connie packs her bags and begins the long journey to Italy, where she soon finds out that she’ll be living in a beautiful remote castle in the hills of Tuscany. There she meets her charge, bad-tempered art dealer William North, as well as his family, including his dazzling niece Evelyn, her handsome husband Roberto and Evelyn’s neglected daughter Nora.

Connie is quickly taken in by the beauty of her romantic new home and the warm welcome of the family and staff members who live there. But it’s not long before the shiny façade begins to shatter. Connie’s nights are disturbed by a terrible wailing inside the walls of the house and ghostly apparitions that only she seems to see, while she finds herself confused, muddled and out of sorts during the day too. In fact, the longer Connie spends in the castle, the more it seems like her dream escape is turning into her very own nightmare. She is left struggling to determine whether she’s the one losing her grip on reality, or whether there’s something more sinister going on behind closed doors.

There it came again, a high-pitched, plaintive sound. I walked to the door. As I said, I was used by then to the castle’s sighs and groans, but this was different, as if the noise had got into my very blood.”

There are a lot of elements of Murder in the Tuscan Sun that will offer a welcome note of familiarity to regular Rachel Rhys readers: the compelling mystery, a dynamic cast of characters and the gorgeous, vivid backdrop of a hot, foreign locale once again come together here to paint an evocative picture, and Rhys takes great care in subverting our expectations of all them. The sultry setting of Tuscany is rendered fraught with the rise of Fascism in Italy under Mussolini, while the beautiful, privileged characters that welcomed Connie quickly become manipulative and cruel as the veneer of kindness and wealth is slowly wiped away. The mystery, too, isn’t entirely straightforward, spending the length of the novel dancing between a classic closed-door crime narrative and spooky ghost story as Connie slowly begins to question everything that’s happening around her.

It’s the strength of Connie’s characterisation in particular that brings this largely very insular novel together. Her life experiences to date, from her first heartbreak and loveless marriage to losing her daughter, caring for her husband and living through the Great War, have made her a strong woman who’s determined to finally snatch a bit of joy for herself. As the novel progresses, however, the first person perspective forces readers to experience Connie’s own confusion, fear and disbelief as her situation worsens and the strength and confidence we know she has is slowly stripped back until she doesn’t know what to believe anymore.

It all makes for a genuinely unsettling read, and it’s truly difficult at times to stomach the cruelty of these characters, particularly that of Evelyn towards her daughter Nora. There’s no denying that it all adds to the dark, gothic atmosphere of the novel itself, though, as it contrasts the descriptions of warm and idyllic Tuscan landscapes and the beautiful, golden Florence with the star imagery of an isolated castle, a mysterious illness and untrustworthy characters heightening the tension at every turn.

If this novel has one major weak spot, it’s in the pacing, which builds too slowly at first and crashes too abruptly at the end with a middle that intrigues, but also meanders and struggles to find the balance between the mystery, thriller and romantic elements it features. It’s also frustrating to see too many behaviours and elements go unmentioned or unexplained throughout the narrative, while the main bulk of the wrapping up, so to speak, is simply told to the reader instead of shown and falls flat compared to the high action and big reveal chapters that precede it.

Despite this, Murder Under the Tuscan Sun reads very much like a cross between Mexican Gothic and Jane Eyre, a combination that I had no idea I wanted to read until I had this book in front of me. Picking up a Rachel Rhys novel always serves as a passport to another time and place, and this latest novel is no exception to that, delivering a compelling story in an enticing setting with a complex web of character motivations at its core for readers to keep unpicking. The plot itself may not be the most unique (and there are definitely some reveals that fans of the genre will see coming) but the true joy of this novel is in the experience of reading. Once you’re hooked into this book, chances are you’re not putting it down again until every last secret is revealed.


Murder Under the Tuscan Sun is published by Penguin on 30 March 2023

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