On the surface, Tracee de Hahn’s debut mystery mimics those Golden Age country house crime novels where the suspects gather in the drawing room facing each other across the tea table, with the curtains drawn against the night. Her book, however, is somehow both more and less than those old thrillers. It’s set in present-day Switzerland as a storm of epic proportions sweeps through the Lausanne region, blanketing the area of Château Vallotton with deadly ice, snow and wind.
Swiss Vendetta opens on a thrilling note—an icy blast, with a murder taking place right off the bat, before readers (or the victim) have time to bundle up against the weather. Just before the storm shuts down all outside access, rookie police officer Agnes Lüthi slips and slides onto the scene along with a couple of other officers, to contend with a château full of suspects.
Though officers and suspects are effectively trapped on the scene by the ice and snow, this particular château has tons of rooms, stairways and secret tunnels, so it’s not exactly a modest Agatha Christie country house. Agnes and her colleagues spread out to try and learn why Felicity Cowell, a bright young appraiser for a London auction house employed by the family to appraise an estate full of treasures, has met her death out in the storm, dressed in a diamond-embellished gown. The château bristles with suspects from the Vallotton family—the regal Marquise, her nephews Julien and Daniel, a peckish godson named Mulholland and a Great Dane named Winston. A young American, Nick Graves, who’s doing historical research at the estate, has a prior connection to the victim, upping the intrigue level. The family’s elderly neighbor, Monsieur Arsov, also figures large, with his dramatic World War II backstory.
Everyone’s full of polite obfuscations, but they give Agnes the run of the estate to pursue her inquiries, so this old/new crime novel ought to be a page-turner, with its marvelous backdrop of storm and menace. However, detective Lüthi’s insights are not always substantiated within the narrative, sometimes seeming to appear from offstage. Readers may struggle to develop sympathy for the author’s sometimes two-dimensional characters, who never quite spring to life.
Swiss Vendetta is full of side stories rich with promise. After a great beginning, a slow-going middle gives way to a finale that helps rescue some of the book’s dramatic potential.