Translated by Ekin Oklap — Daughter of Ashes is the third and possibly final instalment in Italian author Ilaria Tuti’s Teresa Battaglia series. It follows on from Painted in Blood in 2022, which was also published as The Sleeping Nymph. This bittersweet conclusion takes place a mere 20 days after the close of the Sleeping Nymph case and is set in the Italian Alps.
In Daughter of Ashes, past and present merge when Teresa Battaglia – now in her mid-60s and at a crossroads in her career – is forced to confront her past, both figuratively and literally. Giacomo Mainardi, the serial killer Teresa imprisoned 27 years ago, is now in a maximum security prison following a brief escape two weeks earlier. Convinced that someone is trying to kill him, he surrendered to the police. Now he has called for Teresa – the only person he is willing to speak to.
Mainardi wants her to find his would-be murderer but he also implies that he killed someone on her birthday during his brief prison escape. Mainardi won’t divulge who, but hints as to where the body can be found. A bond exists between Teresa and Mainardi and a trip back in time eventually provides the answer.
When she meets Mainardi, Teresa is still on leave recovering from a near-death experience. Given the progression of her Alzheimer’s, she might never return to work – information her colleagues are unaware of. She won’t be able to conceal her condition from them for much longer and her partner, Inspector Massimo Marini, already suspects there’s more to Teresa’s reluctance to return to work.
Teresa Battaglia’s time in law enforcement has not been without difficulty. In flashbacks she is depicted as a 30-year-old rookie attempting to advance in her career despite constant opposition in a male-dominated environment, especially from her then-boss Albert Lona. When she refused his numerous advances, he threatened to ruin her career by undermining her work. Lona eventually goes on to become the district attorney and continues to make her life difficult. Teresa also faced problems at home; she was pregnant and married to an abusive husband who humiliated and hit her in order to erode her confidence and cast doubt on her abilities as a detective, wife and mother-to-be.
A sense of sadness permeates Daughter of Ashes. It feels unfair that Teresa, despite her struggle to build a career and overcome domestic abuse, has been dealt another life-altering blow by Alzheimer’s. All the knowledge and experience she has accumulated over more than 30 years will now be lost and she can only hope that some of it has been passed on to her partner and colleagues. There’s an endearing quality to Teresa’s relationship with her staff, even though she finds it difficult to allow them close to her. She’s especially fond of Massimo because he reminds her of herself at the same age. She wants to protect him, but she knows it’s time to delegate her responsibilities. The two maintain a close relationship while respecting each other’s privacy. Massimo fears and admires Teresa equally, but he wants to care for and support her because he understands her vulnerability.
Her decades-long relationship with medical examiner Doctor Antonio Parri underlines the nature of her close relationships. Antonio saved Teresa from an abusive marriage and she saved him from alcoholism. He also taught her to treat bodies with respect for the pain they’ve endured and the importance to find justice for them.
Ilaria Tuti crafts a flawed but admirable main character who has fought many battles and bears the scars to show it. You’ll find Teresa an easy to like and sympathetic character. She is a keen observer and a master at interpreting people’s actions and reactions by piecing together their narratives. She was able to track Mainardi down because of her interest in clinical psychology and psychopathology, remembering that he too was once a vulnerable child in order to maintain her belief that there was something worth saving.
The plot is tightly constructed across two timelines, with enough interest to keep us turning the pages. Even though the serial killer’s identity is known, we remain focused on the unfolding story of the unknown victim. Even more interesting is Teresa’s own story and how it intersects with that of Mainardi.
Daughter of Ashes has depth and complexity. Yes, it has a solid plot, the Italian Alps as a setting and fascinating characters, but there’s a lot more. It’s a slow but consistently engaging burn, beautifully written with exquisite turns of phrase and vivid descriptions. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy crime fiction with more meat on its bones.
For Italian crime fiction with a legal angle, try The Measure of Time by Gianrico Carofiglio
CFL Rating: 5 Stars