‘The Body in the Piazza’: keeping a mystery series fresh

piazza2“The Body in the Piazza” (William Morrow) is Katherine Hall Page’s 21st entry in the Faith Fairchild mystery series that follows a caterer married to a minister in a fictional town about 20 minutes from Boston.

So many crime series run out of gas or go on autopilot that Page’s ability to keep her characters and plots fresh for more than two decades is quite remarkable.

Mystery fans are fickle — wanting more of the same thing that attracted them to a series and yet being among the first to complain if the plots and characters start to feel stale — but Page has yet to disappoint readers.

Making the author’s accomplishment all the more remarkable is the fact that Faith is an amateur sleuth, the trickiest sort of character to sustain in a series. A cop or a private detective is going to face new crimes every day, but what are the odds that a caterer will run into a “body” more than once?piazza

Well, Page has made us forget Faith’s bad luck by varying the crimes and the settings and even the time frame from book to book, so that we never quite know what to expect in the latest novel. A few of the books have taken Fairchild and her family to their summer resort home on an island off the Maine coast and one story set there involved Faith’s best friend, Pix, in her own mystery.

A recent book in the series flashed back to Faith as a young woman in her native Manhattan to show us how she wound up marrying a minister despite her vow to avoid the same fate as her mother. Faith and her sister grew up under the microscope of being minister’s daughters, something she was determined to escape in her own adult life.

The new book, which was published Tuesday, is one of the most entertaining and most sophisticated entries in the series, a story that takes Faith and her husband, Tom, away from Massachusetts and off to Italy where they plan to take a cooking course from an old friend of Faith’s who lives near Florence.

The trip gives the Fairchilds a break from their two children, and a chance to explore Rome and Florence on their own. Page eases into the mystery aspect of “Piazza” after a few delicious chapters detailing the sensual delights of Rome and the fun of finding an unexpected new friend along the way — in this case, a British travel writer who is immediately comfortable with Faith and Tom and adds to the adventure of their trip.

Faith and Tom witness a murder on a Rome street, an event which turns out to be connected with the cooking school they are traveling to the next day. There, in a wonderful Agatha Christie-style situation, each of the guests is a possible suspect, and Faith finds herself forced to deal with another crime.

“The Body in the Piazza” is just about perfect escapism, but Page avoids the weightlessness that can make other traditional mysteries feel instantly disposable. Murder is not treated casually in the series — each death carries a real sting — so there is a strong moral element in Faith’s determination to find out who did it and why.