After spending the last week visiting Shanghai, Vietnam, and Cambodia with The Map of Lost Memories, I decided to turn to Annamaria Alfieri's Invisible Country, a historical mystery set in the landlocked South American country of Paraguay in 1868.
If you know nothing about the War of the Triple Alliance, in which the combined forces of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil nearly destroyed Paraguay in the mid-19th century, you won't be alone. I hadn't either. No worries for potential readers, though, because Alfieri fills in the historical background with confidence and authority. This devastating military conflict seeps through every page of her novel and affects the choices made by her characters, from impoverished villagers to their well-meaning priest to the cruel, half-mad dictator Francisco Solano López himself.
With only seven of its men left living, the village of Santa Caterina is at risk of dying out. Concerned about its future, Padre Gregorio gives his congregation some shocking advice in his Sunday sermon. To repopulate the country, he grants the women permission to get pregnant outside of marriage. The thoughts of several excited females turn immediately to Ricardo Yotté, who is handsome, wealthy, and a close ally of López. Alas, unfortunately for their hopes, the padre finds Yotté's body in the belfry shortly thereafter.
López's beautiful mistress Eliza Lynch, an Irish-born adventuress and former Parisian courtesan, had requested that Yotté hide Paraguay's national treasure, and his death may relate to that. The gold and jewels have mysteriously gone missing. Also, the villagers know that López's local comandante will want a scapegoat for Yotté's murder. Nearly everyone hated Yotté, and it's up to them to find the killer before one of them gets the blame. As the search proceeds, romantic liaisons develop and secrets abound, some of which would be more dangerous than others if discovered.
The perspective moves among the varied cast, including the village midwife, her maimed husband, their attractive daughter, a devout parishioner, and even the woman known as La Lynch. While privileged, selfish, and comfortably distant from her people's suffering, she is depicted not as a malicious political mastermind but as an intelligent woman who knows exactly where her power lies, and who aims to keep herself and her children safe from her increasingly paranoid consort. (Charismatic Eliza could easily command a historical novel on her own, and has... to mixed reviews.)
This isn't a traditional amateur detective novel, since no one person takes the lead in the investigations. The atmosphere feels realistically tense, as the murder mystery subplot has wider repercussions. The suspense driving the story lies in whether Santa Caterina's likeable and peaceable people will be able to save themselves and prevent even more tragedy. Their determination to rise above their losses invites readers' sympathy and admiration from the very start.
Annamaria Alfieri's Invisible Country was published by Minotaur in July at $25.99 (hardcover, 302pp + historical note).