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‘The Light in the Ruins’

by Chris Bohjalian

Doubleday, 320 pp., $29.95

A woman sits at a vanity, brushing her hair and preparing for bed. A knock at the door. An intruder. Death. Murder —- no, more than murder. The murderer cuts open his victim’s chest and rips out her heart — an occasional narrator in this book, the killer warns readers that there will be others.

Yes, over the first few pages, “The Light in the Ruins” has all the characteristics of a potboiler. But this is a Chris Bohjalian novel and he brings to it the subtlety and language of the literary novelist he is.

It is 1955 and the setting is Florence. The victim was Francesca Rosati, the daughter-in-law of a marchese (Italian nobleman) in Tuscany. Francesca already had her share of pain: the death of her husband and two young children at the hands of the Nazis a dozen years earlier. And now, this.

It’s a question that must be answered by Detective Serafina Bettini, the only woman in Florence’s small homicide squad. When Beatrice Rosati, the marchesa, meets a similarly brutal fate, it becomes clear that this was not a random act of violence. Someone has a grudge against the family.

The action shifts back and forth in time, from 1943 to 1955. As we learn more about the Rosatis and the detective, tension builds as the killer prepares to strike again. He’s planning to kill the wife and children of the Rosatis’ one surviving son.

The denouement is unexpected but logical. Bohjalian has written another winner.