Ilaria Tuti’s Flowers Over the Inferno is an action-packed thriller with a unique serial killer and a multilayered, deep, and incredibly entertaining main character battling at its core. Set in a quiet village surrounded by ancient woods under the shadow of the Italian Alps, this novel also possesses a superb sense of place and an atmosphere that places it head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries.
In Flowers Over the Inferno, a man is found dead in the woods. He is naked and his eyes have been gouged out. The vicious murder rocks the quiet community where it happened. Unfortunately, it is the first in a string of gruesome murders and attacks, all featuring horrible mutilations. The person put in charge of the case is superintendent Teresa Battaglia, who has years of experience and a knack for criminal profiling. Despite being a woman in a male-dominated field, and working in a small town, Battaglia’s commanding presence, knowledge, and demonstrated abilities have earned her the undying loyalty and respect of those working with her. However, this time around there is a new city inspector that has been assigned to assist her and doesn’t know her yet. While working together and trying to establish a relationship, the duo soon learns they have a special case on their hands. As they start to look for the killer, they unearth secrets about the area’s dark history and get closer to a killer unlike any other they have encountered or read about. The case will push them all to their limits, and that’s not a good thing for Teresa, whose body is frail with age and illness. Will she stay on top of her game long enough to grab the killer?
The first element of this novel that jumps out at the reader is the uniqueness of its protagonist and antagonist. At the center of the novel is Battaglia (Tuti never mentions it, but her name means battle in Italian). She is strong but also flawed, brilliant but also damaged. She is an outstanding detective who has to deal with the problems that come from being a woman in a position of power among too many men. Then there’s the killer. When it comes to serial killers, readers are used to feeling deep disgust and fear. Tuti plays that game for the first half of the narrative, but then it changes. This killer has reasons for what he does. He is vicious, but also impossible to hate. He is a result of his past, and that makes the reader see him under a different light:
Once again the killer had protected himself. Teresa had never seen anything like this before: the perpetrator had no qualms taking risks, spreading traces of his DNA around, walking on the snow and leaving his footprints everywhere, showing them, in dozens of identical prints, the shape of the hand that had ripped the victim’s eyes out. But the moment he’d had enough, he was also capable of disappearing inside the forest, like an animal.
The second element is the writing itself. Tuti is a talented storyteller and Ekin Oklap did a fantastic job as a translator, so the prose is a marvel. The narrative shifts time and place often, and it’s always done without a hitch. Furthermore, there is something amazing about the way the author enriches the novel with enough details about the outside world but never forgets that the most important part of a story is what happens inside the characters. There are also various points of view which help keep readers both entertained and guessing until the last part of the final act of the novel. For a taste of the writing, and a taste that speaks volumes about the story’s sense of place, readers need look no further than some of the descriptions of the natural areas surrounding the village:
Snow had transformed the Siva river valley. The gully through which the river flowed had become a kingdom of ice, its verdant fronds supplanted by a white expanse of shimmering crystal, and the lance-like forms of the fir trees transformed into downy pillows. The voice of the water had changed: the sound that rose from the riverbed was no longer a thunderous rumble, but a subdued murmur. The cold had put a brake on the rapids, while the shallower chutes and the stagnant pools had frozen over.
Flowers Over the Inferno is an outstanding thriller with enough gore to satisfy horror fans and writing that will please lovers of literary fiction. Also, this is a debut novel, so it serves both as a perfect introduction to Tuti and a commanding statement that declares a powerful new voice has arrived.
Flowers Over the Inferno
by Ilaria Tuti; translated by Ekin Oklap
Soho Crime; 360 p.