Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

Fall of a Sparrow, by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

Historical fiction is a varied genre. There are novels in which characters from the 1600s twitter gratingly in twenty-first century cliches. There are novels that monologue worthily through true-but-dull facts and where every sentence needs a footnote. And then there are novels like the Bresciano detective series by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe. The authors, two Gibraltarian historians whose primary careers were in medicine and teaching, strike a satisfying balance between well-researched period detail and lively narration.

Benady and Chiappe began their co-written series in 2010 with a novel about a murder in Whirligig Lane (now City Mill Lane, in Gibraltar’s Old Town). It featured a middle-aged medical officer, Giovanni Bresciano, who solves a murder case during a yellow fever epidemic in 1813. In a history of pandemic novels and quarantine, this one will have a distinctive localised place. And also in 2010 Benady and Chiappe decided to write a prequel set in 1779, during Gibraltar’s Great Siege, about Bresciano’s first case. In Fall of a Sparrow the detective is a confused and incompetent youth who has ill-advisedly joined the British forces defending his Rock. We assume he’s going to detect the person who has killed his fellow-soldier, but will he get his deductions right?

The Bresciano novels are by authors who describe themselves as amateurs, and they are published by a small local press. Hardly anyone who doesn’t or didn’t once live on the Rock has read them. But they out-perform many better known and commercially successful novels, both as intelligent detective fiction and as history. As with many mysteries, the plots are sometimes implausible and the narrative a little clunky (would our detective really stumble upon that crucial clue? would he really have met all those historical celebrities?) But the books have a joyful energy that comes from a delight in history and locality. The reader can trust Benady and Chiappe to tell a carefully designed story studded with historical insights: their facts are accurate. Their crime is not overly “cosy” either: floggings, famine and plague characterised the Rock’s Georgian and Regency past. And each novel provides a loving guided tour of Gibraltar’s few square miles. Later books also visit Morocco and Spain.

But I think my favourite feature of the Bresciano novels is the “cast of characters” at the front, which gives a foretaste the novels’ kindly humour. Here we find “Emiliana: Bianca’s slatternly mother, no better than she ought to be” and “an angry Barbary macaque: himself”. The fact that “Antonio: a small hungry boy bringing bad news” gets equal billing with “General Sir George Augustus Eliott: Governor of Gibraltar” is charming. It also foreshadows the books’ interest in every life lived in their pages – and in history. As a frequently distracted reader, I’m also deeply grateful to the authors for giving me a reminder of who on earth “Private Murch (Fat Murch): a greedy drunk” is, or whether “Sir William Green” was or was not a real historical person. It’s impossible not to like the Bresciano mysteries: they deserve more readers.

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Marion’s Latest Book

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

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(Cambridge University Press, 2022)
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