The Etruscan Net by Michael Gilbert (Hodder & Stoughton, 1960), later released as The Family Tomb, is one of Gilbert’s stand-alone mysteries. There actually isn’t much mystery to it but there are some great characters to help the obvious plot unfold. Robert Broke has taken refuge in Florence, after the death of his wife and child in an auto accident. He runs a high-end bookstore and largely stays to himself, despite the attempts of the expatriate community to involve him in their social gatherings.
He breaks this habit to attend a party at the villa of Professor Bruno Bronzini, an eccentric who is sponsoring the excavation of an Etruscan burial site on his property and who is a known dealer in Etruscan antiquities. Broke is something of an authority himself on some aspects of the Etruscans, and the professor invites him to visit the excavation site, where he sees a number of gold and alabaster artifacts that he asks a few questions about but doesn’t get satisfactory answers.
A few days later the elderly craftsman whose daughter helps run the bookstore asks to talk to Robert but never gets past idle chitchat as he is convinced someone is listening to their conversation. Soon after the elderly gentleman is found dead in the street, clearly the victim of a hit and run, and Robert’s car has damage in all of the right places so he is arrested without much evidence. Neither Robert nor the daughter have learned what the victim was worried about and they both assume it had something to do with his death, but the police are not interested. Robert’s friends flock to his defense while Robert sits in his cell reading. The real question of the book is how they will get him out of jail.
The book is full of well-drawn characters. The offbeat professor, the doyenne of the Florence expatriates, Robert’s imperious sister who arrives to help him, the sneaky boarder who rents a room from the elderly craftsman, the craftsman’s wife. Even the two mystery men whom everyone assumes are from Sicily are clearly outlined. I was disappointed in the minimal plot but still found the story a worthwhile read.