M.E. Cooper





Padlock Mystery Press, 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Historical Mystery, Renaissance

KEY DECEPTIONS opens cheerfully in a Guild meeting with two tradeswomen tolerantly watching the brangling of their fellow guild members. However, by the end of the first chapter, we discover that Avisa Baglatoni, her relatives and friends, are sitting on a powder keg without knowing it – all except Avisa who herself has laid the fuse. She has secretly taken a Jewish boy as apprentice in the locksmithing trade, a crime punishable by death.

Avisa is a fortunate widow, because her husband taught her his trade before he died in the accident that left her lame. She can therefore support herself. Her enviable independence sets her somewhat apart in the community. She is very close to her in-laws, who in turn love her apprentice Bernardo like a son. Avisa’s best friend is Luisa, the only other female member of the guild, whose ugliness hides a delicate silversmith’s skill and a generous heart. Avisa is unfortunate in her choice of enemies; Ippolito the mayor’s son, whose dishonorable advances she has rejected, has vowed to revenge himself by destroying everyone she loves.

The fuse in Avisa’s powder keg is lit by the theft of a hoard of silver from Duke Henri Bentivoglio. The town’s instant solution is to burn down the Jewish ghetto. Running to warn the Jewish community, Bernardo puts himself in danger of exposure, and sure enough, he is conveniently seen by Ippolito, who now has his weapon. Avisa, with her friends and associates, must avert destruction by recovering the silver for the Duke.

The cozy has come to the Italian Renaissance – with certain adjustments to make allowance for poisoning, pogroms, and routine betrayal. On the one hand is the loyal, supportive group of Avisa and her friends and the accounts of their daily lives, and on the other hand is the comfortable sense of authenticity as Avisa plies her trade. A woman journeyman can’t have been common in the trades, especially as a smith, but Cooper explains Avisa’s circumstances and connections well enough to be completely believable. The reader is also given eyes in the Duke’s palace, the determined Dorotea, whose anomalous position as lady-in-waiting and painter-in-training leads her into escapades that would never have been tolerated in a court lady, so that this one character is only marginally believable.

KEY DECEPTIONS is not meant to be a source for learning history. Although the Bentivoglio family did rule Bologna in 1489, the author has replaced the ruler of that time, the tyrant Giuseppi Bentivoglio, with the more amenable Henri. She does weave into her story the current threat posed by France, and has obviously done research on armor and weapons as well as the rules governing the Guilds.

It took me a few chapters before I began to feel that the author was speaking to adult readers. KEY DECEPTIONS will pose no severe challenges to readers new to the historical mystery genre. However, it was not long before I stopped being distracted by simple thought lines and plunged into the story. Previously, M.E. Cooper has published true crime and contemporary cozy mysteries. She has now written the opening books of two historical mystery series simultaneously, the other to be set in the American Civil War. I am told, tantalizingly, that UNCIVIL DEATH has quite a different tone from KEY DECEPTIONS. KEY is perfectly cast for a lazy afternoon.

Apr 2001 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site


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