Books: Interrupted Aria

Author Beverle Graves Myers combined her love of opera, Italy, history, and mystery in this mystery set in 18th century Venice and featuring an opera singer. Since I have no interest in opera myself, I wouldn’t have gone looking for a book where opera features so prominently.But I did go looking for historical fiction mysteries, and when a more recent title by this author popped up in a list of books at the library, I was interested enough to learn more.

Since I always prefer to start a series at the beginning, I found out that Interrupted Aria was the first of Myers’ Tito Amato mysteries. The reviews at amazon.com were mostly very positive. And the idea of a mystery solved by a castrato opera singer during the Baroque period is so different from the majority of mysteries out there that I was intrigued. It didn’t hurt any that the book was set in Venice, where I spent one day during my travels around Europe during Christmas break the year I spent studying in Spain.

It takes the reader a while – over a third of the way through the book – to get to the murder Tito decides he has to solve. But there are plenty of smaller mysteries along the way, any of which might turn out to be related to the murder. But even aside from the intentionally mysterious aspects, the book is fascinating for its view into life in a city and era unfamiliar to most readers.

I knew from history classes that Italy prior to the nineteenth century was not a country but a region divided into a number of warring city-states. One of Daniel Silva’s novels I read last year had described how Venice had been built on a swamp,and how merchants had made the city a powerful center of commerce, but I knew next to nothing of its political history. Myers paints a picture of influential people scheming to increase their power, usually at the expense of those without the means to resist.

In that regard it is not unlike books set in modern times, since human nature hasn’t changed. But Myers puts great effort into making the characters people of their own times, not people who think and act like us who happen to be embedded in a word of historical fiction. With a central character who was castrated (under mysterious circumstances) at age eleven to preserve his beautiful soprano voice, the novel offers a perspective quite different from that of the hard-boiled detective, forensic investigator, or village busybody inquiring into other people’s troubles.

It’s always interesting to learn how an author’s own experiences help shape a book. Myers was a psychiatrist prior to becoming a full-time writer, and in an interview she tells how practicing psychiatry in a public mental health clinic provided abundant material for characters in her books. “Each of my books has also ended up including at least one character that has a full-blown psychiatric problem.” I had not recognized the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome in Tito’s sister while I was reading the book, but now I can see how some of her behavior is characteristic of that syndrome.

There is enough about the opera in the book to be interesting, but not so much that it bores a non-enthusiast of the genre. Other than some references to singers adding vocal ornamentation to the composer’s score (as evidently they were expected to do), it is little different from reading about any other dramatic performance. Details of roles, scenery, and complicated machinery (to provide the deus ex machine), as well as the audiences (who see opera as a social event and feel no compunction to keep quiet), bring the opera house to life.

Much as I enjoy singing, I’ll never feel the rapture Tito does when he sings. But I enjoy sharing his experiences vicariously, and I have already requested the next book in the series from the library.

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