Cold Tuscan Stone, the debut novel of David P. Wagner, introduces readers to an amateur sleuth no doubt intended as the hero of many thrillers to come. Rick Montoya is a 30-something son of an American diplomat and his Italian spouse. He was raised for a while in Italy, and then in New Mexico. Fluent in Italian, he has recently relocated to Rome where he is working as an interpreter and translator.
He has an uncle who is an important figure in the Italian police force, and who thinks he should be thinking about a career in law enforcement. And although Uncle Piero really doesn’t figure largely in the present book, sporadic references to him would certainly seem to be foreshadowing of things to come.
When a friend from Montoya’s Italian school days, now an official in the Ministry of Culture, enlists his help working undercover on a case involving the illegal sale of Etruscan artifacts in the Tuscan town of Volterra, what seemed like a simple scheme to flush out a shady art dealer, very quickly turns into a case of murder.
Montoya is supposed to pose as a representative of a New Mexican art dealer who is looking for high end antiquities for wealthy collectors willing to flout exportation laws. He is given the names of three suspected Volterra dealers to contact, and sent up to Tuscany.
He isn’t there a day when an employee of one of the dealers dies in a fall from a cliff overlooking Roman ruins. Is it an accident? Suicide? Murder? Montoya, it turns out, was the last person to see him alive. While not a suspect, Montoya finds he has gotten himself tangled up in a situation a lot more complicated than he’d bargained for. He runs into a variety of suspicious characters as he pursues his undercover activities, all possible suspects both in the antiquities scam and the murder.
First-time novelist Wagner, a retired Foreign Service Officer who had spent nine years in Italy, uses his intimate knowledge of the country to fill his pages with the kind of local color that brings the setting to life on the page. Indeed, it is his painting of the Italian social landscape that may well be the best thing about this book. Whether he is describing the tiny portions at an upscale restaurant or a breakfast of cappuccino and a cornetto at a local bar, whether the fashion habits of the local ladies, local landmarks, or the carvings on Etruscan funeral urns, there is no question he knows what he is talking about. He makes the setting come alive.
There is, of course, a surprise or two. As in all good thrillers, Wagner leads the reader down a garden path strewn with red herrings and false starts, until he ties everything up in a nice tight package that will more than likely satisfy the most jaded of mystery lovers. Montoya, while neither a detective savant, nor a rough and tumble novice, is the kind of likeable hero that will appeal to a good many readers. He is the kind of hero sure to be around for further adventures.