One of my book challenges for 2018 is to read the first book in a mystery series I have not read previously. Obviously, I would have many from which to choose; after reading about Tracee de Hahn who was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, grew up in Kentucky, and lived in Switzerland after receiving a degree in architecture and European history from the University of Kentucky, I made my choice: Swiss Vendetta, the first in a detective series featuring Inspector Agnes Luthi.
Inspector Luthi has experienced a tragedy in her own life when her husband inexplicably commits suicide, leaving Agnes stunned and trying to care for their three young sons. When Agnes returns to work after her husband’s funeral, she asks for a transfer to the Violent Crimes unit from Financial Crimes, reasoning that she needs a fresh start working with new colleagues. Her new boss will be Chief Bardy; she is leaving Chief Carnet of Financial Crimes behind.
Tracee de Hahn felt inspired to write this story after the epic 2005 ice storm in Geneva, Switzerland and surrounding area; the storm left the area paralyzed and without power for days. See pictures below from the real ice storm.
Inspector Luthi is on her way home, along with several other officers deemed non-essential that evening as the ice storm is beginning. However, before she can get home, she receives a call to go to Ville-sur-Lac where a young woman has been found murdered at Chateau Vallotton, a prestigious estate owned by the wealthy Vallotton family.
Inspector Luthi almost makes it to Chateau Vallotton when her Citroen C1 slides off the road, then hitting the Chateau wall before coming to a stop. Luckily, Agnes is in sight of the Chateau at this point. She has also called Sybille, her mother-in-law who is caring for Agnes’ three sons, to tell her about the assignment.
Unfortunately, Agnes is not properly dressed for the magnitude of cold and slippery ice she must navigate in order to make it to the crime scene and then the Chateau Vallotton. I felt cold just reading about Agnes’ stop by the dead woman’s body. The murder takes place on the grounds between Chateau Vallotton and the smaller, though still majestic, mansion owned by the Vallotton family, but leased to Vladimir Arsov, an elderly Russian businessman.
The photograph below is not Chateau Vallotton; it is Schadau Castle. From the descriptions in Swiss Vendetta, I could see a chateau such as Schadau Castle.
Picture from schloss-schadau-schadau-palace-thun.html
Because of the severity of the ice storm, power outages, and inability to leave the Chateau except to cross the lawn to Arsov’s home, de Hahn has set up the classic closed room mystery even though suspects can move from one home to the other. No one can leave the premises, at least and not get very far.
Who are the suspects? As with many of the Golden Age mysteries, this modern-day mystery also offers readers a variety of suspects. As Agnes investigates, she discovers she must question servants in two houses, an American college student doing research in the Chateau Vallotton library, Marquise Antoinette Vallotton de Tornay and her godson, along with the Marquise’s two nephews and niece-in-law. Other potential suspects include Frederic Estranguet, who has been using the Chateau Vallotton library for research and who helped Agnes and Chief Carnet get from their stranded cars to the Chateau as well as Harry Thomason who claims to be the dead woman’s fiancé.
Although I complained about coincidences in the review of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, I find the coincidences in this story more acceptable. They fit into the story once readers have the entire narrative opened up. One perhaps not unexpected turn is a connection to WWII which Arsov provides. He escaped being murdered in Russia by Nazi soldiers by pretending to be dead and lying in the open grave with his dead family members and fellow townspeople.
Inspector Agnes Luthi, like Arsov, is an outsider since she is an American by birth. Her parents raised her in Switzerland and then they returned to the US. Agnes decides to remain in Switzerland where she marries George and carves out a career in the police force. Still, she considers herself an outsider, something Sybille, her mother-in-law reminds her about often. Because of George’s suicide, Agnes recognizes her difference even more stringently.
Felicity Cowell has come from London to evaluate art owned by the Vallotton family. She works for an auction house in London. Julien Vallotton, older son, and current owner of Chateau Vallotton, has commissioned Felicity to spend several weeks going through the art work.
Why would Felicity who is dressed in a priceless gown from the Napoleonic era be murdered on the grounds of Chateau Vallotton? Agnes must work with her old boss Chief Carnet because her new boss Chief Bardy cannot get through the icy streets to the Chateau Vallotton. As Agnes and her team discover that Felicity Cowell is actually Courtney Cowell who has no university education or training to help her evaluate the art, the mystery deepens. Is Felicity/Courtney connected somehow to Ralph Mulholland, the Marquise’s godson who lives in London? What about a connection with the American graduate student Frank Graves who is using the Vallotton library? And who is Harry Thomason who says he is Felicity’s fiancé?
Swiss Vendetta provides a satisfying story with a manageable cast of suspects. Inspector Agnes Luthi is a formidable police detective. I look forward to reading the second book which has already been published in 2018: A Well-Timed Murder. Tracee de Hahn’s university education in architecture and European history serve her well in the stories.
Find out more about Tracee and the Agnes Lüthi Mysteries on her official Web site: https://traceedehahn.com/, Facebook at TraceedeHahnwriter, and on Twitter @LuthiMysteries.
Read de Hahn’s blog: https://traceedehahn.com/blog/.