Sunday, January 19, 2020
Turn to Stone by James Ziskin: Reading Room Review
Mamma mia, James Ziskin, you have left no stone unturned with Turn to Stone, Ellie Stone #7. This author, whose linguistic training always makes reading his stories a mellifluous experience, has gone one step further with this book by sharing the heart and soul of his expertise and familiarity with Italy and the Italian language. It is, in a sense, a love letter to the country and its language, because it is a beautiful tale beautifully told. I think it is a book that James Ziskin was fated to write, with every road and path he took—be it his academic work or his career choices or his writing of the Ellie Stone series. Of course, all the Ellie Stone books are wonderful, and I have been thrilled by all of them, but I do consider Turn to Stone a novel that touches the inner sanctum of Ziskin.
Ellie Stone has arrived in Florence, Italy in September of 1963 to attend a one-day academic symposium, where she will accept an award for her late father’s work in Italian medieval literature studies. Arranging this honor was a Professor Alberto Bondinelli, who had heard her father lecture in the 1930s and had become a fan. Following the symposium will be a weekend with some of the attending scholars, including Bondinelli, at a country house in Fiesole, which promises to be a relaxing, luxurious time. With that weekend and two weeks after to follow her own touring schedule of Italy, Ellie is excited to be in the city she had long ago visited with her father. And, she has brought her treasured Leica camera, a gift from her father, and a new 135mm Elmar lens to capture her Italian holiday. So, it looks like Ellie can take off her newspaper reporter’s hat and have some fun in the Italian sun. However, Ellie isn’t there a day before her host, Professor Bondinelli, is discovered floating face-down in the Arno River, and the police are starting an investigation to see if foul play was involved.
Despite the tragic death of the professor, the other participants in the symposium and the weekend retreat decide to go ahead with the plans Professor Bondinelli had painstakingly made for them. After the group’s arrival at the Villa Bel Soggiorno for the weekend, those plans go rather askew. First, the owner, Max Locanda, was supposed to be away with his girlfriend in Switzerland, but they end up at the villa, too. Then, Inspector Peruzzi, in charge of the investigation into the professor’s drowning, informs the group that the drowning may not have been accidental, so everyone there needs to be available for questioning. And, the cherry on top is one of the women in the group comes down with what might be rubella, resulting in a quarantine of the whole house of guests for an undetermined amount of time. It’s suddenly become a locked-room murder atmosphere, especially for Ellie, who can’t help but put back on her reporter’s hat to sniff out a possible guilty party. What Ellie doesn’t expect is the long reach of this suspected murder back to the days of WWII and Fascist Italy and the time of 10,000 Jews being sent to death camps. Who was Professor Alberto Bondinelli and what is the connection to Max Locanda’s family, and why would Ellie’s father who was Jewish be friends with someone who might have been involved in a Fascist regime? While the group eats the best of Tuscan food and drinks the finest wines, they spend each night telling tales related to the Decameron and the suspected murder, and Ellie spends time with Bondinelli’s fourteen-year-old daughter who has joined them from boarding school in England. Getting to know the people in the group and the owner of the villa is a priority for Ellie as she struggles to discover who has motive for a murder.
Once again, James Ziskin puts the mark of the 60s on this Ellie Stone story, and he does so seamlessly, never forced or superfluous are the details that place the setting as the 1960s. From the new airport in Rome to the JFK Presidency to the 45 Beatles’ records, it’s an organic part of the story. Having purchased “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles as my first 45 record and remembering the Beatle invasion into the United States, I was especially thrilled with the inclusion of that part of pop culture. This series has been solid since the first book, and I seem to say each one is my favorite. So, my new favorite is Turn to Stone. Each book has historical elements by just being set in the 60s, and I love learning from them. Turn to Stone explores some of Italy’s history during WWII and how the different factions have existed over time. Questions that war inevitably brings forth about forgiveness and morality run through this history. There is so much layering in an Ellie Stone novel that keeps the reader intrigued from beginning to end. I can’t wait to see what Ellie encounters next.