Tito Amato is a castrati singer. He has been lured from the canaled city of Venice to the mainland to sing the lead in a new opera, Il Gran Tamerlano, telling the story of the great conqueror. With Tito is his English brother-in-law, Artist Gussie Rumboldt, who has been comissioned by the owner of the estate to paint its vinyards and hillsides.
When Tito arrives, he finds that a castrato was not the first choice the writer of the Opera would have made for the lead. He was hired at the insistence of the show's female star, Gabrielle Fouquet, who claims to know him, when Tito doesn't remember any woman of that name, not even having heard of her. He soon discovers that the woman posing as Gabrielle Fouquet is actually his sister, Grisella Amato. Her mother died in birthing her, and so she was despised by their father. Her nurse, though, raised her like a true mother would. Last the family had heard, Grisella had been captured and taken to Turkey, where even now, her other brother, Alessandro, seeks her.
Shortly after Tito arrives, a man is found dead in the hall near the room where he sleeps with Gussie. The man is unknown to everyone, and appears to have been killed with a pendulum from the grandfather clock in the hall. Gussie and Tito, however, find a bullet in the man's head, and see that the wound with the pendulum was made to cover up the true cause of death. They also find a pistol on the body, one marked with the crowned double eagle of Russia. Both Tito's sister and another singer, the soprano Carmela Costa, have been to Russia recently by their own admission. Carmela was there to be romanced by a Russian count, who gave her a magnificent pair of Pearl earrings as large as Pigeon's Eggs, but whose suit was denied by his own family. And his sister was there to sing. Which one was the man there for?
With the constable apparently out hunting, Tito decides to investigate on his own while enjoying his reunion with his sister. Her husband, however, is a jealous man, and looks with suspicion on anyone trying to talk with "Gabrielle" except for himself. Grisella asks for Tito's help in fleeing the man, who apparently is only posing as her husband. They meant to get married originally, but never had the time, something which she is now grateful for.
Then Carmela is killed, drowned in a wine vat, with her earrings (which she always wore) still on her ears. Whoever killed her, it was not agents of the Russian Baron's family seeking to regain the earrings, for if it were so, the earrings would not have been left behind. Who else could have killed her, then?
Meanwhile, back in Turkey, Tito's brother continues to search for Grisella, and uncovers some very nasty things about her in the past. When Grisella's husband dies in the bath, again by means of the Clock Pendulum, Tito begins to suspect that his sister may be behind the deaths. But if she'd killed the man, there would be bloodstains on her clothing, wouldn't there? And aside from a coffee stain she had before she went up to take a bath with her "husband", there were no blood stains on her. So who could have killed him? Tito knows he must find the true killer if he is ever to rest easy and bring his sister home to the bosom of her family. But is she really the helpless sister he remembers, or have the experiences she's undergone stained her for good?
I really enjoyed this book. The writing is crisp and conveys a sense of place, and also of the dilemma hanging over Tito as he investigates a series of murders that may have been committed by his own sister. Even if she is guilty, can he turn her into the authorities? Tito wrestles with this dilemma for most of the book, and cartfuls of Red Herrings are strewn left, right and center to divert both Tito's and the reader's attention. The ending comes as a bit of surprise, but the denoument is perfect, bringing together the scattered threads of the storyline into a coherent whole.
Because this is the fourth book in the series, much was not explained. Tito is apparently a castrati, but also apparently has children, though they are probably not children of the body, so to speak, as he has all the marks of a castrati who was made one before puberty. I would have liked to find out more about the character, but I will probably have to read the other books to find out. And I probably will, as I found the series, the detective and his friends and relatives to be extremely interesting and well-written.
If you are into mysteries, this is a fine one, and well worth the time of seeking out to read.