SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Saffron Crocus by Alison McMahan


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Venice, 1643. Isabella, fifteen, longs to sing in Monteverdi’s Choir, but only boys (and castrati) can do that. Her singing teacher, Margherita, introduces her to a new wonder: opera! Then Isabella finds Margherita murdered. Now people keep trying to kill Margherita’s handsome rogue of a son, Rafaele.

Was Margherita killed so someone could steal her saffron business? Or was it a disgruntled lover, as Margherita—unbeknownst to Isabella—was one of Venice’s wealthiest courtesans?

Or will Isabella and Rafaele find the answer deep in Margherita’s past, buried in the Jewish Ghetto?

Isabella has to solve the mystery of the Saffron Crocus before Rafaele hangs for a murder he didn’t commit, though she fears the truth will drive her and the man she loves irrevocably apart.



02_The Saffron Crocus Cover“Rafaele!” She flew into the garret. “Piero, it was so wonderful, wait until I tell you!”

Finally, she turned around so Rafaele and Piero could inspect her. “Your thoughts, good sirs?”

Piero jumped up and posed next to her, so Rafaele could compare them.

“What do you think, Signor Swordsman?”

“She makes a very pretty lad,” Rafaele said.

“Not a lad. A castrati.” Piero touched Isabella’s cheek. “Only a castrati could have such a smooth cheek.”

Isabella looked away. If she could convince Signor Monteverdi that women could and should sing in his choir, then no young man would have to be castrated again.

But that wouldn’t help Piero.

“Now listen carefully,” Piero said. “You must be very careful.”

He gave her detailed instructions. About everything. There was so much to remember that Isabella felt dizzy.

“Are you sure you can do this?” Rafaele asked.

“Yes, of course.” She tried to sound sure, although she was not certain at all.

Outside, the weak winter sun was low in the sky. Piero unlocked the door for her then locked it again behind her.
Isabella had worried that she would get lost, but she quickly discovered that all she had to do was follow the crowds. Everyone seemed to be going the same way. She could hear the bells ringing for vespers all over the city.

It was easy to get caught up in the throng, to enjoy herself in spite of the rain. She looked at all the shop windows and admired the fur capes of the wealthy merchants or the armor of the condottiere.

It was the first time she had ever walked unescorted through the city of her birth. And yet, she was more absorbed in reflecting on what she had discovered.

Margherita was a courtesan.

The painting had been done years ago, when Margherita was still young. She become rich and famous as a fallen woman. She had used her beautiful voice and her singing skill as part of her profession of pleasing men.

No wonder Rafaele had been so resentful and angry. He did not know who his father was. When he walked through the city, as she was doing now, did he look upon each merchant or condottiere or even each visiting foreigner and wonder if one of them was his father? And even if one of them were, would Rafaele ever know? The only one who might have known was Margherita, and she had died before she had told him. Now Rafaele’s anger toward his mother would never be resolved.

Isabella pitied him. At least she had known her own father. She could still remember his scratchy beard and the feel of his vest when he picked her up. Rafaele didn’t even have memories like that.
She was so occupied in her thoughts that she was surprised to see that she had reached the Campo di San Marco. A few rays of the setting sun managed to penetrate the rain clouds and lit up the façade of the basilica, making the gold mosaics gleam.

The bells were ringing again. Vespers was about to begin.

She could feel her breath and heart rate speeding up. Finally, finally, finally, her dream would come true, and she would sing in Signor Monteverdi’s choir. And not just on any day, but today, December eighth, the day to celebrate Mother Mary’s conception without sin.

Isabella followed Piero’s instructions carefully. She watched other choir members enter the side door. She waited to go in herself until the last bell had rung. After a few moments of confusion she found the attiring room and counted the hooks until she found Piero’s. The white choir gowns were bulky and heavy, the sleeves very wide, the cap too big for her head. Piero’s gown was too long for her.

She felt a hand clap her on the back.

“Piero, my friend, I thought you were among the missing.”

Isabella turned to the young man next to her, already attired in his choir robes. When he saw her face his eyes widened. “You are not Piero.”

“Shh.” She looked around to see if anyone had heard him, but the other singers were too busy adjusting their own robes and joking with each other. “I’m Piero’s friend. He asked me to sing in his place, as we were out carousing all night and he still can’t stand up straight.”

The young man looked at her with new interest. “Really? And what’s your name, Piero’s friend?”

“Just call me Piero.”

“And Rafaele, was he with him?”

Isabella dropped her eyes to the ground. It was hard for her to lie, even now, when she was wearing a castrati’s clothes and getting ready to sing in his place. In church. “Yes. But we couldn’t find anyone to take his part.”

“Don’t worry. There are plenty of tenors. Not enough sopranos, though.”

She adjusted her choir robe. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Well, Piero, Piero’s friend, I’ll keep your secret, but make Piero promise that next time he goes carousing, he invites me to go along. Tell him Bastian said so.”

“I will, Bastian. But please, don’t call attention to me.”

Bastian grinned at her and lined up behind the other choir members. Isabella got into place behind him and walked out into the church on her tiptoes so that she wouldn’t trip on Piero’s long robes.
She took her place—Piero’s place—in the choir. She felt small, a small girl surrounded by the bigger male singers.

And she felt big at the same time. She had gotten here, in spite of all the obstacles in her way.

The entire church was brilliantly lit with hundreds of candles and oil lamps. It was over crowded, but people were still coming in. Signor Monteverdi stepped out and tapped his podium with his wooden pointer.

Isabella’s breath caught. It was really happening. She was here, in the choir of the Basilica di San Marco, the most wonderful choir in all of Venice, in the whole world, and she was going to sing with them.



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03_Alison McMahan AuthorAlison McMahan chased footage for her documentaries through jungles in Honduras and Cambodia, favelas in Brazil and racetracks in the U.S. She brings the same sense of adventure to her award-winning books of historical mystery and romantic adventure for teens and adults. Her latest publication is The Saffron Crocus, a historical mystery for young. Murder, Mystery & Music in 17th Century Venice.

She loves hearing from readers!

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4 Responses

  1. I didn’t see a question to answer so I’ll leave a comment. With it’s mystery and history the city of Venice is always an interesting setting in books. And in this particular story you have the added attraction of Monteverdi and his choir, and a young lady who wishes to sing in it. Willing to go into disguise to do it. And, in addition, a mystery surrounding the death of her singing teacher who had been a famous courtesan. And last, but not least, saffron, a rare and expensive spice is involved. All around, a great combination!

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