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City of Silver, by Annamaria Alfieri

September 30, 2013

Felony of the Week: City of Silver

This week’s Felony of the Week is City of Silver, by Annamaria Alfieri, a historical novel set in a place and time you haven’t visited before.

Historical mysteries are always popular, but, as with foreign mysteries and the shifting appeal of various locales, readers tend to gravitate toward one period and then, perhaps, another. Well, that’s not entirely true: Victorian London is an evergreen – some combo, perhaps, of the fog, the relative familiarity, and the lingering ghost of Mr. Holmes. In the mid-90s, Ellis Peters’ “Brother Cadfael” series was reissued, after some time out of print, kicking off a passion for medieval settings that lasted for a number of years.

“Ancient World” mysteries also had a good run, headlined by books by Lindsay Davis and Steven Saylor. And mysteries set in World War II tend to be popular, if only because Nazis make such satisfying villains.

Many of these books have been terrific. But because of their tendency to travel in packs, they have suffered sometimes – from a reader’s perspective – from a certain sameness. One peasoup-fog is remarkably like the next.

And then came City of Silver, with a hot South American sun burning through that fog. South America? As mystery readers, we barely knew the continent existed! To find it stuffed with intrigue and betrayals and schemes was just pure delight. But the purest pleasure, for me, was in discovering that the setting, in the 17th-century city of Potosi, was absolute fact: Potosi – deep in the mountains of what then was Peru and is now Bolivia – was at one time the wealthiest city in the world. (You may be less easily astonished than I, but that fact made me fall off my chair: A city I had never heard of was the largest in the Western Hemisphere? Was richer than Venice, than London, than Amsterdam?) Credit for both the size and the wealth goes to the region’s silver mines, which essentially formed the (far-flung) heart of Spain’s treasury. Of course, where there’s wealth, there is corruption, and where there’s corruption . . . my friend, that’s where there’s scope for great mystery fiction. At the center of the story is a rivalry between the Spanish government and the Church, in the person of one formidable, middle-aged nun. And at the center of the reading-pleasure is how utterly unfamiliar this story is. As a bookseller, I rarely got the chance to be surprised. City of Silver surprised me over and over again, and what a delight that was.

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