Monday, July 7, 2014

"The Etruscan Smile" by Velda Johnston

 Published:  1977
Setting:  Modern Day

...early sunlight, penetrating part way up the staircase, showed me something affixed to the right-hand wall.  My steps reluctant, I descended the stairs.  

It was a sheet of lined paper, evidently torn from a tablet and affixed to the stone wall with a bit of transparent tape.  On it was a childish sketch, drawn with crayons, of a figure dangling from gallows.

With nausea in the pit of my stomach, I realize that the hanged figure was supposed to be me...had the repulsive sketch been there when Arturo and I climbed the dark stairs about eight hours ago?  Perhaps.  More likely, it had been placed there later.

I must not be frightened, I told myself.  That was what someone wanted.  A cowardly someone who twice had invaded this house under the cover of darkness, the first time to set that fire- I was sure now that it had been set- and the second time to leave that crude but chilling sketch...

Samantha Develin leads a characteristically mundane existence as a single teacher in New York City.  She's always dreamed of the glamorous lifestyle of her older sister, painter and troubadour Althea, whom has taken up residency in Italy where she paints to her hearts content and lives a bohemian lifestyle.

But when months go by with no word from Althea, not even in the form of answered letters, Samantha takes it upon herself to figure out where Althea has been in her absence and what is keeping her too busy to communicate with her family.

Samantha soon takes up residency in the old Tuscan farmhouse along the green hills of Florence as she tries to uncover the mysterious circumstances of Althea's disappearance.  She's sure there's something fishy about her sisters quick leave when she notices Althea's beloved plants are dead and her fridge is over-flowing with ruined food.  Her drawers and closet are also stuffed with clothes and Samantha feels this is an indication that Althea must have left in a hurry, but for what reason?

From the onset it seems that no one wants Samantha in the tiny old town that was said to have homed her ancestors decades earlier.  The towns people are right down cruel and even her nearest neighbor, an archeologist, tries to warn her away.  Then she meets the prestigious family for which Althea rented her apartment, and their son Arturo, who is as handsome as he is sly in his advances for fancy dates and sight-seeing.

But all is not well, nor safe, for Samantha.  During her first night there, beneath the veil of darkness someone sets a fire in the garage beneath her apartment.  Mere days later she finds a grotesque painting portraying herself hanging from the gallows.  And as if there were not enough, as she delves into the mysteriously dangerous life of her sister Althea, Samantha finds herself uncovering clues of ancient goddess statues, illegal drug use, even prostitution.  She fears her sister took a wrong turn in life and became involved in shady dealings and for that she paid with her life...but with Samantha uncover these dangerous secrets and solve the disappearance of her sister, or will she lose her own life trying?

This was a wonderful book reminiscent of Mary Stewart and Barbara Micheals.  I was particularly drawn into the atmosphere of the old Tuscan hillside of Italy as well as the historical aspects of gods and statues.  The mystery of the missing sister and the blooming romance towards the end was icing on the cake!  This is one of the best I've read from Velda Johnston thus far!

My Rating:
   5 Stars

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