The Love for Three Oranges: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery

Written by Mary F. Burns
Review by Susan McDuffie

Italy, 1879. John Singer Sargent mysteriously summons his good friend Violet Paget from Florence to Venice. Sargent’s note gives scant detail, but when Violet arrives at Ca’ Favretto, the home of the artist Giacomo Favretto, she finds murder has preceded her there. Several weeks earlier, a maidservant fell into the canal; she claimed a ghostly hand pushed her from the balcony above. Then, two nights before Violet’s arrival, a second maid drowns, her mouth stuffed with orange peels. Giacomo has been taken into custody, suspect in this murder.

John and Violet’s search for the real killer unfolds against another, older tale—the memoirs of the 18th-century Count Carlo Gozzi, a playwright and the original inhabitant of the palazzo. Gozzi’s youthful infatuation with the beautiful Caterina, mysteriously lost jewels, and his successful play “The Love for Three Oranges” hint that the 19th-century death of the maidservant might even have a ghostly solution. Have ancient curses and the quest for vengeance returned to the Ca’ Favretto to roost?

This read immerses the reader in the 18th– and 19th-century world of La Serenissima, the beautiful Venice. Burns does an excellent job highlighting the different tones of each century in her writing; Gozzi’s memoirs recount the 18th-century portion of the tale, while Violet narrates the 19th-century portions. The contrasting personalities of Sargent and Paget, as well as their deep friendship, are convincingly portrayed, and Burns obviously knows her characters well. Hints of the paranormal waft elusively through the tale, and although most of the mysteries are satisfactorily resolved, other possibilities may linger in the reader’s mind, as tantalizing as the scent of oranges.