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by Annamaria Alfieri
Felony & Mayhem, April 2011
368 pages
ISBN: 1934609730

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In 1650, Potosi is the largest city in the Western hemisphere, a city so rich that the inhabitants are said to burn money, and not candles, in its church. For a hundred years, silver has been mined in Potosi. But now, as the novel opens, the mines are becoming depleted and most of the mine owners are in debt. And Spain is sending a visitador general a prosecutor and the Grand Inquisitor to the city, where false money has been put into circulation.

Then there are the deaths. A miner is killed, because of letters he had kept hidden for someone. And Inez de la Morada, the mayor's older daughter, dies mysteriously inside a locked room at the convent of Santa Isabella de los Santos Milagros. The abbess, Mother Maria Santa Hilda, buries her in sacred ground at the convent, believing Inez would never have committed suicide. But when the inquisitor believes otherwise, and puts the abbess on trial, the other nuns and a priest must prove that Inez's death was murder, not suicide, in order to save the abbess' life. Novitiate Beatriz Tovar, who has escaped to the convent because her father wants her to marry a man of his choosing, not the man she loves, also becomes increasingly involved in the mystery.

This book is interesting as a historical novel. Alfieri paints a very vivid picture of Potosi, a real-life colony of Spain in what was then the viceroyalty of Peru (and is now in modern-day Bolivia), a city that loomed large not only because of its wealth, but because at 13,500 feet in the Andes mountains it was the highest city in elevation. There's a lot of detail that will capture those who like historical novels. However, as a mystery, it's almost as thin as the air in the Andes. There's no central sleuth, but instead a large cast of characters. Beatriz Tovar, an engaging, strong character, doesn't come to play a key role in solving the mystery until near the end. The lack of a strong mystery, unfortunately, dulls this novel's shine a bit.

Lourdes Venard is a newspaper editor in Long Island, N.Y.

Reviewed by Lourdes Venard, April 2011

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