Published as McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy in 1977, this early McGarr mystery, newly reprinted with a new title, is most unusual in that it takes primarily in Italy, not Ireland. Here Gill captures the mounting tension, the rich pageantry, and the centuries-old traditions of the Palio in Siena with the same kind of lush, colorful description and eye for detail one has always admired in his Irish settings, making this frantic horserace around the piazza sound as thrilling and irresistible as it must be in reality. The fact that the former chief of SIS, now Ambassador from the UK to Italy, is shot down before McGarr's eyes during the race certainly dampens McGarr's enthusiasm about his return to Italy, where he had previously served with Interpol for five years. He was supposed to be guarding the Ambassador.
This is the third such murder of a former SIS chief in the space of two weeks, the first two having occurred on a country farm on the windblown shores of the Dingle peninsula at the southernmost tip of Ireland. Leaving the Irish investigations to others, McGarr delves into the Siena murder, which is connected to an Italian oil company drilling for oil off the coast of Scotland, disputed oil claims, the leader of the Italian Communist party, and shady relationships between politicians, the police, and cutthroat oil executives. Siena with all its radiant splendor, its Italian palazzos, its exuberantly described food, and its Beautiful People with their romantic dalliances and smug self-confidence offers sharp contrasts with the site of the earlier Dingle murders, where some residents still cook over peat fires and haven't quite figured out how to use the telephone.
Lovers of the McGarr series will enjoy the complexity of this mystery despite its differences from the rest of the series. McGarr is as psychologically acute and as insightful in his interactions as we have come to expect, in addition to being as quick to abandon by-the-book procedure in the name of justice. Many detectives from the Garda station in Dublin who make the later mysteries so vibrant have not yet been introduced to the series, however, and the women (including McGarr's wife Noreen) tend to be stereotypes (doing a lot of shopping and staying almost completely in the background). Some ethnic insensitivity, including slurs and racial stereotyping not present in the rest of the series are startling here. The new title, too, is a mystery--Cummings, the victim, is the Ambassador from the UK to Italy. He is not an Irish Consul at all. Mary Whipple