Evil Under the Tuscan Sun
Tuscan Cooking School Mystery, Book #3
By Stephanie Cole
Author Website: stephaniecolebooks(.)com
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Jeanie
Nell Valenti is at ease when managing a farm to table cooking school in sun-dappled Tuscany, but begins to feel the heat when tasked with catching a killer, in this engaging Italian-set cozy mystery series.
When a wealthy New York philanthropist pays top dollar for a private, four-day ziti workshop, Nell Valenti wants everyone at the Orlandini cooking school focused on the task at hand. But complications abound when Nell’s boyfriend Pete Orlandini rushes to Rome for an unexpected business trip, Chef Orlandini is more preoccupied with a potential spot on an American cooking show than preparing for the workshop, and an uninvited woman sneaks into the villa to inspect Pete’s olive grove. The last disturbance proves deadly, and when the woman’s body is found in the grove, Nell must investigate before her hopes for the workshop, like the olives, are crushed.
Nell now has another item on her checklist–keep the Orlandinis out of trouble and the wealthy ziti-lovers happy while she looks into the stranger’s past. When Nell discovers that for one of the Orlandinis, at least, the murder victim was not such a stranger after all, she’ll learn that when a detective goes digging in Italy, she’d better be ready for truffle. (Goodreads)
This complex mystery was intriguing and exciting. I saw my favorite people from the Villa Orlandini, including Chef Claudio, his son Pete, the Bari sisters, and Nell, the cooking school designer from New Jersey. We also meet their guests from New York. The mysteries are gifts that keep giving! Someone the Orlandinis deem the witch is murdered. There is also a mystery that began early in WWII, involving the Villa at a time when the Orlandini family fled Italy due to the impending war.
The Orlandini Cooking School in Tuscany welcomes a New York billionaire. Philip is renting the entire school for a four-day class for his mother Mimi, her best friend Muffy, and himself. Mimi’s 80th birthday is that weekend. She has dementia, making it her last chance to travel. It would mean everything to her to visit their school in Tuscany. Since she loves ziti, he wants their cooking theme to be Ziti Variations.
Adjacent to the villa/ cooking school is Pete’s olive grove. Pete, the olive grove, and villa grace the front cover and are the leading article in the internationally distributed Bellissimo! magazine. He had to attend meetings in Rome for a few days. He suddenly has many opportunities as a handsome bachelor and entrepreneur. Nell, his girlfriend, is not amused at some of the attention he is getting.
The day that the Copeland party is due to arrive, Nell saw a man and woman walking in the grove. The woman acted as if she owned it. Nell went to see what they needed, but they both ran off the property. Nell followed them into town and saw them go into a hotel. She went into Carlo’s bakery and scheduled a time for the Copeland party to learn how to grind grains by hand to use for the ziti. Nell saw the woman and her companion in the bakery before she left, told them she would be happy to give them a tour, and the woman said she knows the property as if it were her own.
The first evening that the Copelands and Muffy were there, they went to the best cocktail bar in town, where Nell learned the woman’s name is Renata from New York. She acted as if she knew Philip, but he doesn’t know her. She manages her inheritance, is into property development, and is seeking investors.
Philip is funding a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is interested in adding the architectural drawings for the Villa, built in the late 1500’s. What Nell finds, with the help of a nun who had helped the sister caring for the villa during WWII, is amazing, as it will connect the 1940’s to the present activities.
When Nell brought Philip, Mimi, and Muffy to town the following day, Nell overheard Renata’s argument with her companion, Jason, who is her attorney. She dumped him as a boyfriend and talked about turning her inheritance, including the shops and the grove, into luxury condos. When their spat ended, Jason left. Later, she saw Renata going into the hotel with – Pete? Pete, who is in Rome?
The next day, Nell took a spill into the groove, and rolled into something soft – the clearly strangled remains of Renata. What’s even more shocking is how Nell learned that Renata was Pete’s wife when she didn’t even know he was married! Renata had never filed for divorce twenty years ago as promised. She will file for divorce now only if he gives her the entire olive grove. As her husband, with his lack of alibi and huge motive, the police arrest him for murder.
Annamaria, Chef’s long-term sous chef and house manager, and her sisters want Nell to find who killed the witch. She had helped solve other murders in the short time she has been there. No matter what secrets Pete kept from her, he didn’t deserve to be charged with a murder he didn’t commit.
It was delightful to catch up with everyone at the villa! I wasn’t happy with what appeared to be Pete’s duplicity. I very much enjoyed meeting Mimi and Muffy but didn’t care for Renata and Jason. The characters were very well defined. We are privy to all of Nell’s thoughts, which at times ran on forever, but were very descriptive and at times humorous.
This novel is enhanced with plot twists and surprises, especially at the end. I particularly enjoyed the intriguing historical mystery, especially seeing the war from the perspective of nuns meshing with other things I’ve read. Both mysteries kept me guessing throughout. Heartwarming things I appreciated the depth of friendships and how fascinating Sister Ippolito was. The ending was very satisfactory, and there were no loose ends. I highly recommend this cozy mystery!