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Sweet Song, Bitter Loss by Paul Hencher


16th Oct 2022 Book Reviews

Sweet Song, Bitter Loss by Paul Hencher

Sweet Song, Bitter Loss by author Paul Hencher is a stunning crime thriller with the dark underbelly of rural Italy running through its veins. 

By Gwyneth Rees


It is tricky to sum up quite what an enjoyable and accomplished novel Sweet Song, Bitter Loss is.

Crime fiction with a flavour of Italy, it is a fast-paced page-turner packed with dark secrets and thrilling suspense that will hold your attention until the tragic denouement.

The story revolves around the disappearance of a nature-loving 11-year-old, Giovanni Mirelti, who vanishes from his family home in the fictional village of Montenero, in the rural Abruzzo region of Italy.

Major D’Angelo of the Italian Carabinieri (Italy’s military police), reluctantly peels himself away from a traffic incident to take charge of the search for the missing boy.

Meanwhile in Abruzzo’s main city of Pescara, Colonel Battista – D’Angelo’s superior officer –is also getting stuck into a case of his own, investigating a gruesome drug-related murder as well as a possible imminent shipment by a people-trafficking gang with links to South America. 

Each of these plot lines are engaging in themselves, and they run in tandem throughout the novel until Major D’Angelo’s trusted colleague, Sergeant Teresa Rossi, follows a potential lead in the disappearance of Giovanni to the north east of England.

Here, the investigation soon reveals itself to be far more dangerous and complicated than anyone could have imagined.

Crime novels depend on their twists and turns for full impact so I won’t go into any further details concerning the storyline but it is fair to say that with the principle characters thrown into the deep end, and with jeopardy leaping off virtually every page, you can count on a truly dramatic and satisfying climax.

Sweet Song, Bitter Loss is a brilliantly-written and plotted crime thriller that is both gritty and gripping in equal measure – paying homage to the greats of crime writing such as Agatha Christie while presenting something fresh.

Part of its charm is undoubtedly the setting, which many readers will be unfamiliar with.


Sweet Song, Bitter Loss – the first book in the Major D’Angelo Mysteries trilogy – is a fast-paced crime thriller that makes the most of its dark storyline and Italian setting.

Abruzzo is something of a pastoral paradise, and the stark contrast between the natural beauty of the unspoiled region and unnatural evils lurking within the shadows swiftly and memorably impresses itself upon you, making the terrible events which unfold stand out all the more.

Crime aside, however, you couldn’t ask for a more vivid and celebratory description of the region, with author and Abruzzo resident Paul Hencher (who relocated to Italy with his wife from the UK more than a decade ago) effortlessly capturing the rural lifestyle and scenery, as well as the prevailing mindset of its people, with its relaxed yet macho culture.

There are lovely snippets of detail, from the cookery (an Italian staple) and strong bond of family to the rolling hills and fireflies dancing wildly at night.

Yet this literary postcard does not shy from Abruzzo’s darker side, where hunters roam and engage in illegal trade, conservative attitudes suffocate those of different persuasions, and priests are the true ‘untouchables’, beyond reproach no matter their crimes.

On this expansive and detailed stage, Hencher directs a company of characters who sparkle in their authenticity and presence.

His ability to render even the most marginal of figures, be it a disgruntled neighbour or prostitute, as believable individuals – often in just a few short words – is exceptional.

In particular, however, I must praise the way he has brought Giovanni – the 11-year-old child whose disappearance is the catalyst for everything that follows – alive at the start of the novel.

We know that this boy is a nature lover, one who cares about animals – be them snakes or rabbits being kept for food – and we knew he doesn’t fit in as he doesn’t like football,  a social crime of great magnitude in this region. 

But we don’t get to see him for long before he goes missing and the fact I continued to care about him thereafter is a testament of Hencher’s writing skills, and clear indication that his background in amateur dramatics has reaped dividends for him as an author.

Major D’Angelo and his team, meanwhile, are a winning combination. D’Angelo is a brusque and physically imposing man yet beneath the steely exterior is a warm heart that beats to protect the innocent and right wrongs, as this moving passage of dialogue, with D’Angelo recalling a similar case, reveals:

“I saw the poor kid lying in the rocks near the beach at San Vito where he was found. He looked like a broken little doll, except the crabs and seagulls had already had a go at him. If Giovanni Mirelti is still alive, I don’t want him to end up the same way.”

Sergeant Teresa Rossi, meanwhile, is, refreshingly, just as formidable a crime fighter as her male counterparts.

Sweet Song, Bitter Loss‘s plot, pace and structure are, likewise, of the finest order.

As mentioned above, the story swings between two main narratives and they are both handled expertly before slowly fusing together – a tricky act to pull off, like juggling plates.

Much of the story is concerned with procedural police work but no scenes drag and there’s always something happening – be it a mugging, a theft or even torture – to arrest the attention.


Author Paul Hencher has lived in the scenic Abruzzo region for more than a decade. In his gripping crime novel Sweet Song, Bitter Loss, he effortlessly captures the spirit of the land.

And as with any good work of crime fiction, you’ll come across the occasional red herring among the plot threads, offering the opportunity to test your super-sleuthing skills.

The chapters are short and, therefore, move things forward at a brisk pace while the dialogue is likewise punchy, occasionally injecting a little dark humour to lift the spirits, such as during an autopsy scene where the deceased’s stomach contents are being described:

“Yes, yes, Captain, I get the picture. We’re conducting a murder investigation, not a culinary quiz. Continue.”

But let’s be clear, this is a not a cosy detective story à la Miss Marple; the themes it explores, namely loneliness and isolation, the shocking events and the sometimes graphic descriptions, point very much to Hencher being a fan of hard-boiled  crime fiction. The message is clear: even in idyllic settings violence can still wreck lives.

While the author has one previous book to his name, historical novel Shackles Of Loyalty (Matador, 2020), this is his first work of crime fiction, and it is quite the triumph.

The great news is that Sweet Song, Bitter Loss is the first part of a trilogy, The Major D’Angelo Mysteries’, so we shouldn’t have long to wait until we get the chance to return to Abruzzo in follow-up A Secret Never To Be Told.

In the meantime, this book is a must-buy for those who like their crime fiction like the Italians prefer their coffee, dark and strong, being an unforgettable novel that uniquely fuses gritty crime fiction with the beauty of rural Italy. 

Sweet Song, Bitter Loss by Paul Hencher (Matador), is available on Amazon or via the publisher in paperback and eBook editions, priced £9.99 and £3.49 respectively. For more information, visit

Q&A Interview With Author Paul Hencher

We speak with crime fiction and historical fiction author Paul Hencher to find out more about his writing career, and his new novel, Sweet Song, Bitter Loss, which memorably mixes crime fiction with a flavour of Italy.


Q. What first inspired you to become an author, and how have you found the experience thus far?

A. Despite struggling to write a Christmas card greeting or a three-line email, I have always enjoyed the longer form of writing, having started with the occasional magazine article, usually for natural history publications. My first novel was an historical fiction, before then writing the crime thriller Sweet Song, Bitter Loss.  Doubtless in common with many authors, there are times when the process is a struggle, but each new page or chapter committed to paper is a continuing source of satisfaction.

Q. What do think readers will enjoy most about your new novel, Sweet Song, Bitter Loss?

A. It’s been very encouraging to hear complimentary comments about Sweet Song, Bitter Loss. Some of the common themes of readers’ remarks include the fact that they find it well-written, that it is fast moving, they are gripped by the suspense, and the characters are true to life.  Underlying the tense crime story is the backdrop of life in the beautiful Italian region of Abruzzo.

Q. Is there any character in the novel with whom you identify, and if so, in what ways?

A. Strangely enough, although I don’t think I was aware of it at the time of writing, the character of Giovanni is very similar to the young me, particularly in respect of his love of nature, his free spirit, lack of conventionality, and inclination to ‘do his own thing.’

Q. Your novel paints quite the contrast between a seemingly idyllic setting and the darkness behind the surface. This is perfect for a crime novel but what is life really like for you in rural Abruzzo?

A. Life in Abruzzo is very pleasant, offering wonderful mountain walks, the nearby Adriatic coast, friendly people, and of course Italy’s café culture. We are fortunate to be surrounded by a sizeable area of woodland where we are able to see some spectacular birds – including, of course, golden oriole – and many species of animal. Sadly, the dog we rescued as a puppy, and our companion for the past 15 years, died earlier this year; we miss her greatly. My other regret is that my spoken Italian is barely sufficient for conversational use, especially in a region with a distinctive accent (and, in fact, where some older residents still speak dialect rather than true Italian).

Q. You also write historical fiction. Can you tell us more about where the idea for your debut novel, Shackles Of Loyalty, came from?

A. My first novel was The Leopard of Dramoor, now re-titled Shackles of Loyalty, set in the dramatic and historically rich county of Northumberland, or ‘Northumbria’ as the former kingdom was known. Although the story is fictional, it was the area’s history and many splendid castles where I found inspiration, along with my life-long love of the natural world –  a passion which features in all my writing.


Prior to Sweet Song, Bitter Loss, author Paul Hencher wrote historical novel Shackles of Loyalty, set in medieval Northumbria.

Q. What would you say is the secret to writing a gripping crime novel?

A. One of my guiding principles from when I started to plan Sweet Song, Bitter Loss was that it should prove very challenging to work out the ending.  There are certain clues, but they are fairly well concealed.  I also believe that both plot and characters should be credible, so that as far as possible one can imagine being involved in events as they happen, and to share emotions such as fear, anger or comradeship.

Q. Which authors have had the most influence on your writing style? 

A. I haven’t consciously followed the style of any single author. The books I enjoy reading are those I consider well written, whatever the genre, so authors whose work I admire include Robert Harris, Clare Francis, Bernard Cornwell, J. K. Rowling, and J. R. R. Tolkein.  I have recently read the DCI Boyd series by Alex Scarrow, which I greatly enjoyed, particularly the brilliantly drawn characters.

Q. You have previously written plays. How has the experience of writing plays helped with writing novels?

A. I believe there’s a close relationship between theatre and novels, in terms of both plot development and definition of characters. Whether acting on stage or writing a play, it’s necessary to ‘get inside the head’ of a character, to think about how that person under those particular circumstances would react, and what they would be likely to say.

Q. If there was a TV adaptation of  Sweet Song, Bitter Loss, who would you cast to play Major D’Angelo and Sergeant Teresa Rossi, and why would they be perfect for the parts?

A. I would like to see Jude Law cast as Major D’Angelo. He’s the consummate actor, the correct age for the part, and a dark, brooding presence able to convey all the right emotions. I would envisage Kaya Scodelario as Teresa Rossi – an excellent actress, athletic and powerful, who always looks well cast in a multi-dimensional role.

Q. Without giving any spoilers, what we can we expect next from Major D’Angelo and Sergeant Teresa Rossi? 

A. For Major D’Angelo, there’s another difficult case to try to solve, once again relying on help from his team, along with some extra help from a couple of outsiders. Teresa Rossi is rewarded with promotion to lieutenant. She is drawn romantically towards Captain Luciani, but the burgeoning relationship also pulls her into Luciani’s dangerous obsession with his pursuance of the politician who is now their political master.

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