Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a former leading Mafioso, has turned his back on the family business, and has joined the Rome police force. He may be one of the last honest men in Italy.
But when Scamarcio is handed a file of extremely compromising photographs of a highprofile Italian politician, and told to ‘deal with it’, he knows he’s in for trouble. And when a young man is found stabbed to death in Rome, and a young American girl disappears on a beach in Elba, Scamarcio’s job gets a whole lot more complicated.
Italy is fertile ground for crime fiction. With the mafia, political shenanigans and corruption often making international headlines. In addition, it is a beautiful and colourful place with fabulous locations for nefarious acts. Nadia Dalbuono's debut novel, The Few, draws on all of these aspects, and adds a few more to create a heady mix of plot and character.
Detective Leon Scarmacio, like all good crime protagonists, is a policeman with a shady past and on the outer with his colleagues. Son of a famous mafioso, Scarmacio is the white sheep of the family, a fact that is not lost on his less than white colleagues. In The Few, Scarmacio is drawn into the investigation of the death of a male prostitute which also involves blackmail of a senior government minister and shady dealings at all levels of the Government.
Then, following an anonymous tip-off, Scarmacio becomes involved in the investigation of a missing American 7-year-old on the island of Elba. There are a number of these poorly justified tip-offs in the novel, dropped in to keep the investigation (and plot) on track.
As the plot unfolds on Elba, The Few starts to feel like two, or perhaps three, books shoehorned together. The whole is also not helped by short italicised flashbacks at the beginning of some of the chapters, many of which make little sense and require rereading as plot unfolds. And while the disparate plot strands and flashback sequences do come together towards the end, the novel never escapes the feeling of being overstuffed with plots, characters and connections. In the end, while the central mystery is resolved, there are still a number of side issues, particularly related to Scarmarcio's past, left dangling for an expected sequel.
THE DARK VALLEY, Valerio Varesi
It is autumn in Parma. Commissario Soneri decides to escape the city to return to his home village in the Appenines for a much-needed holiday. He plans to spend the time hunting for mushrooms on the wooded slopes of Montelupo. The small and isolated village revolves around the fortunes of the Rodolfi family, salami manufacturers for generations. Its patriarch, the gifted Palmiro, runs a tight ship, but behind the scenes, all is not well: his son, Paride, has other plans for his future.
I tracked down this book because I enjoyed the first in the series (RIVER OF SHADOWS) very much, but was prompted to actually start reading THE DARK VALLEY because of another book set in Italy. In that book the setting didn't quite seem to work, and I found myself craving something steeped in the location and culture. Got it in spades.
Commisario Soneri is on vacation in his home village in the Appenines reconnecting with places and memories from his childhood, walking in the forest and most importantly collecting mushrooms. Which is frustrating for him as the crop has been particularly sparse. Finding himself feeling very much an outsider now, his discomfort is made worse when the owner of the local salami factory is murdered and Soneri is torn. The case comes under the jurisdiction of the Carbinieri but he cannot help but ask questions. His disconnection with the locals is both smoothed over slightly and exacerbated in other ways as he finds out the extent to which villagers have lost money because of the salami factory, and how tensions go right back to the Second World War. There's also the distinct possibility that his own father might have been involved in some of the murkier parts of the village's history.
Aside from a beautifully complex and intriguing plot, the thing that is fantastic about both of these books is the sense of a life being lived by Soneri. He's a thinking man who hears and sees a lot of things, quietly processing the information, setting it in the right context. He's also a quiet, driven man who is determined and comfortable a little outside of the general stream of the world. He's brooding but not clichéd, dark but not depressing. The stories, the places and the character of Soneri are all atmospheric and involving. Whilst the crime's are important in these books, a lot of it is about how Soneri reacts to their consequences, sifts through the gossip and hints and braves the uncomfortable truth.
A DARKNESS DESCENDING - Christobel Kent
When Silvano Niccolo, the driven, charismatic leader of a Florentine political movement, collapses at a rally, his young party immediately comes under threat. And when it emerges that his long time partner, Flavia, has disappeared, leaving behind not only a devastated husband but their newborn son, the political becomes dangerously personal - and Sandro Cellini is drafted in to investigate. The trail leads to a tired sea-side town and a modest hotel, where Flavia chose to end her life.
A DARKNESS DESCENDING is the fourth book from Christobel Kent featuring ex-cop, now private detective Sandro Cellini. As this is the first from the series I've tried, I'm guessing that you may have to start from the beginning to get a handle on the who and hows of these characters.
Of course it doesn't help that there's a bit of an expectation nowadays that Italian Crime Fiction is going to include fabulous food, a grumpy central detective, an immersion-like sense of place or some combination thereof, but for some reason I struggled with this book.
In the early stages of the story there are a lot of characters introduced. Most seem to have important back-stories but because they are piled on top of each other, the attempts to fill in some of the details are there, but easy to get confused. Cellini, his wife, his assistant and her boyfriend, in particular, obviously have a close and strong relationship much of which is informed by their shared past. What, in the early stages, seems a bit heavy handed and confused, however, does lighten up and consequently become more informing once the plot claws it's way out into the light, and the action starts to proceed.
The plot itself is an unusual one, which will be confronting for some readers. It is rather chilling, and uncomfortably believable for one that relies on the absolute manipulation of other people. Harking back to the Italian expectation, I also couldn't quite shake the feeling of observation of the local culture, as opposed to immersion in it. Somehow I knew I was in Italy, but didn't feel like I was in Italy like I have done with other recent reads.
I suspect that reading the earlier books in the series would have been a very good idea, and whilst I struggled with A DARKNESS DESCENDING at points, I think there's enough there to make me keep an eye out for the earlier books. I'd like to see how the series started out.
AUGUST HEAT - Andrea Camilleri
When a colleague extends his summer vacation, Inspector Salvo Montalbano is forced to stay in Vigàta and endure the August heat. Montalbano's long-suffering girlfriend, Livia, joins him with a friend-husband and young son in tow-to keep her company during these dog days of summer. But when the boy suddenly disappears into a narrow shaft hidden under the family's beach rental, Montalbano, in pursuit of the child, uncovers something terribly sinister.
It's hard not to sympathise with Montalbano about the heat. Especially as I sit here trying to write this note on a 38°C day. With a worse one to come. It's something that was really particularly marked in this book - the way the heat became a part of the story, just as the sense of place, and character is so very strong. You could see Montalbano and his colleagues slogging out an investigation in the dreadful heat. You could sympathise with him when the holiday house from hell reared its ugly head, and you definitely could understand how he might be tempted by the twin-sister of the murder victim, no matter how wrong it seems.
At the heart of the book is another tightly constructed plot with aspects of the political and the Mafia built in, but not in a manner overwhelming. This isn't a story about the Mafia's control, rather it's a story about the possible outcomes, the idea that some people might be protected as a result of their connections. And it's a story, as always, about Montalbano's dogged pursuit of the truth. To the detriment of a lot around him. Except his meals of course. Some things are sacrosanct.
THE COLOMBIAN MULE - Massimo Carlotto
When Colombian Arias Cuevas is caught trying to smuggle drugs through Venice airport, his fear isn't fuelled by the idea of prison. He's much more frightened of his aunt - it was her coke he took off with. The cops set up a sting to find out who was to be the recipient of the drugs, and art smuggler Nazzareno Corradi falls straight into the trap. But he's been set up. His lawyer hires "the Alligator," and his fixer, Max, to find out what's going on.
At this time of the year for some reason, goodness knows what, I crave dark, violent, humorous escapism. I crave pulp, noir, hardboiled, I'll even happily take nasty. THE COLOMBIAN MULE delivered exactly what I was looking for.
It doesn't hurt that this isn't a police procedural, a stereotypical lone wolf private detective or any of the expected scenarios as well. Instead we do have a PI, who works with a group of old friends, to solve problems. In this case, the problem is why one man seems to have been set up to take the fall as the recipient of drugs smuggled in by a Columbian man who has a big reason to be worried about himself. What doesn't make sense is why he's seemingly identified the wrong man as his contact. Our hero, ex-con, former blues singer, fixer, secret bar owner and his intrepid team set out to work out what the real story is.
The book is sparse, tight and beautifully balanced, with not an excess word in sight. Peopled with some very original characters, who slide and dodge their way through life, with every action, every act, tempered by the understanding of what doing time in jail will do to a man.
VOICE OF THE VIOLIN - Andrea Camilleri
As the fourth mystery in the internationally bestselling series opens, Montalbano’s gruesome discovery of a lovely, naked young woman suffocated in her bed immediately sets him on a search for her killer. Among the suspects are her aging husband, a famous doctor; a shy admirer, now disappeared; an antiques-dealing lover from Bologna; and the victim’s friend Anna, whose charms Montalbano cannot help but appreciate. But it is a mysterious, reclusive violinist who holds the key to the murder.
There's a Renault Twingo referred to as having "committed suicide" when Gallo, the station's driver, he of the "Indianapolis Complex", slams into it in a spectacular example of mad driving that had me crying with laughter on page 4 of VOICE OF THE VIOLIN. Which is not a bad writing feat at all, in 4 pages you know that Montalbano's in a mood after a fabulous meal was interrupted by his nemesis Catarella. That his car's in the shop and he has to get to a funeral. That Gallo's a madman, and there's now a green Renault Twingo parked on the side of the road that's now got a smashed rear end. And you're laughing.
There's nothing particularly funny about the subsequent discoveries when Montalbano returns more than a bit intrigued as to why nobody has rung the station breathing fire over the damage to their car. And it's not all plain sailing in this case as Montalbano battles mutual dislike between him and his new boss, has the investigation taken off him with dreadful consequences, and stares down a bit of discontent in his team all whilst he battles to come to grips with a major upset in his personal life.
As is expected in this series, tight, descriptive, brilliant storytelling with a wonderfully engaging central character who has raised grumpiness to a glorious art form.
THE PAPER MOON - Andrea Camilleri
A beautiful woman reports her brother missing, who is found murdered with his junk hanging out. Inspector Montalbano has to find out if the murder was love or business-related, and his usual dogged determination makes him dig deeper and deeper to find the surprising truth.
Please don't ask me what the correct order of this series is, as I've got absolutely no idea. I've never found the need to worry about it as each book works on its own, and each book is one of those little pieces of joy that just make you feel good.
Part of it has got to be Inspector Montalbano who is just so gloriously grumpy and idiosyncratic that he leaps alive from each and every page. Part of it is the setting which is woven into the action so seamlessly that you're just there, in that location, beside that ocean, in those restaurants, with those people. But definitely it's that food, which, frankly, I'm starting to think there should be a law against. You simply cannot read one of these books without constant mental references to the decided lack of wonderful meals lurking in your own refrigerator. (Note to self, first sniff of a Lotto win and we're hiring one of those housekeepers that cook like he has!).
Of course, none of the pluses thus far touch on the nature of the plots in these books, which are also extremely good. Almost masterclasses on tight, taut, clever plots in succinct but fully formed stories, decorated brilliantly by all the other aspects.
I dip into this series these days when I want a bit of comfort reading. And when I'm not on a diet.
DEAD BISHOPS DON'T LIE - André K. Baby
Saas Fee ski resort, Switzerland, 7.00 am March 6, 2005
A group of skiers find themselves staring in horror at the half- naked body of a man, his outstretched arms tied crucifixion-like to the cable of the Alpin Express cable car. The victim is later identified as the outspoken, controversial Monsignor Antoine Salvador, Archbishop of Lyon.
Personal vendetta or the beginning of sectarian violence? The Swiss police are baffled by this grisly crime and call Interpol for help. Thierry Dulac, a caustic inspector with an enviable track record, gets the nod.
I must admit that thrillers with a religious scenario are not the sorts of books that I seek out, so DEAD BISHOPS DON'T LIE by André K. Baby would not be a book that I'd normally give a second glance. When offered by the author for review purposes, I did stop and think about it, and there was something about the blurb of the book that appealed. Probably the "caustic investigator" idea - being a declared fan of the less than perfect central protagonist.
Set in the European environments of Switzerland, Italy and Russia, with a touch of the exotic in the Caribbean, the gruesome murders of two archbishops seem to be related by the hidden meaning in the way that the killings were done, as well as the messages left by the murderers. Investigator Thierry Dulac, dry, acerbic, controlled and measured, is put in charge of the international investigation, and in turn he looks to an expert in mythology and symbolism for help in decoding the killer's cryptic messages.
Of course in this sort of thriller, you expect a big conspiracy, and in religious thrillers I doubt there's any more obvious source of that threat than the Vatican, the Code of Silence, and lurking Cardinal's influence. Toss in a bit of Russian past and present menace, a British Marchioness with some out there sexual habits and something that she seems to be hiding, and you're well into the realms of the money, the influence and the power.
Rule number 1 with these sorts of thrillers is that there must be a good sense of pace and action. It's a bonus if you can get some good, believable, realistic characters built into that. It's a bigger bonus if there's a good sense of place and the occasional bit of exotic as well. In the main, Baby's settings and characters are really good, the reader really gets a feel for each of the locations in this book, and a chance to connect with all of the major characters. The baddies were nicely lurking and threatening, without stepping that narrow line into cartoonish. There are a few problems with some the pacing at points in the book, and a couple of extraneous scenes that perhaps could have been dumped to get the action and pace of the book moving forward quickly, but really, once the scene is set, the story is very engaging.
If, like me, you're a bit wary of this sort of thriller, it would be worth swallowing the reticence and giving DEAD BISHOPS DON'T LIE a go.
RIVER OF SHADOWS - Valerio Varesi
In a bleak valley in Northern Italy, the River Po is swollen to its limits. The thick fog that usually clings to the town, blurring its surroundings and plunging its inhabitants into near-blindness, has been driven out by the raging storm. So when an empty barge drifts downriver, the fact the owner is missing does not go unnoticed. That same night Commissario Soneri is called in to investigate the murder of the boatman's brother. The brothers served together in the fascist militia fifty years earlier - could this be a revenge killing after so long?
My pencilled list of things to expect from Italian Crime Fiction isn't particularly long or even all that surprising. A certain, shall we say obsession, with food; an eccentric, slightly grumpy, protagonist who spends a lot of time in his own head and seems to be quite happy there; and the occasional unexpected interpersonal relationship. That's a tick in boxes for RIVER OF SHADOWS then. Set on the banks of the River Po in Parma during a long cold, wet winter where the best everyone can hope for is that the river freezes to limit the reaches of the flooding, a barge captain goes missing on a night when everyone is distracted by the rising water levels.
That night the bargeman's brother falls from a window in a local hospital, a death that looks like suicide, but is quickly shown to be murder. Set in the current day, the roots of the fate of both brothers weaves its way into the society of boatmen and river dwellers and back to their time as fascist militia members in WWII.
Whilst there's a slightly subdued feeling to the story telling in this book, there's something beautifully atmospheric, introspective, and complex building. Commissario Soneri contributes a lot to all of those aspects, a wonderfully individualistic character with a particular personal style, he's a thinker and an observer, rather than an action man. Unless you're talking about his rather unusual relationship with a girlfriend who is commitment phobic and fond of eclectic sexual encounters. A girlfriend who could be some men's idea of the perfect woman - all sex and no complications - it's Soneri that seems to long for more. I really liked this Commissario, and not just because he's my favourite sort of detective - a bit grumpy, a bit eccentric, a loner by circumstance rather than preference. I liked that he questioned everything and everybody, including himself. I liked his cynicism, his sense of irony.
There was something very believable about the way that the past directly impacted on everyone. There's something very evocative about the way that the communist / fascist differences in particular continued to affect present day lives and perceptions. That idea of the past and the future winding in and out is repeated in the way that the life of the people ebbed and flowed along with the river that dominated how and where they lived.
RIVER OF SHADOWS really is exactly my sort of book - characters, a society and a landscape each with their own positive and negative aspects. Considered, introspective and thoughtful analysis of all of those elements, and a direct line between the past and the present.
Now if you're sitting comfortably, a bit of housekeeping. RIVER OF SHADOWS is the fourth book in the overall Soneri series, and the first one available in translation. A second has been translated - THE DARK VALLEY - which I understand is the 6th book in the series. As teeth grindingly annoying as that is, if you love slower, atmospheric translated crime fiction, then this is seriously good option.
THE NAMESAKE - Conor Fitzgerald
When magistrate Matteo Arconti's namesake, an insurance man from Milan, is found dead outside the court buildings in Piazzo Clodio, it's a clear warning to the authorities in Rome--a message of defiance and intimidation from a powerful crime syndicate.
Perhaps I should just start this off by saying Mafia storylines are possibly my least favourite scenarios. Maybe (and probably unfairly) it seems like an easy target, the other possibility is that there's rarely anything new or illustrative about their activities. Either way, I'm acutely aware that this is a personal prejudice which is undoubtedly irrational and unreasonable.
Adding to the complication was THE NAMESAKE being the third Commissario Alex Blume novel, and my not having read either of the earlier ones. This meant that Blume, an interesting, enigmatic and flawed character, was not always quite fully fleshed out in my mind. Whilst not having read the earlier books didn't seem to matter in terms of picking up the plot of this part thriller / part police procedural, somehow I couldn't help wondering if the slightly disconnected feeling I was getting could be partially because it would have been better to have read this series in order. Whilst there were some aspects of Blume's backstory built into THE NAMESAKE, somehow he always seemed slightly distant, fuzzy around the edges. Perhaps other reviewers, who have read the full series, will be able to be much clearer on this requirement.
Given that involvement of the Ndreangheta in the plot, it wasn't all that surprising to find some predictable elements being explored - corruption, loyalty, power plays, so called "honour", vengeance and vendetta. The main plot pits Blume directly against one of the main underworld figures, whilst the sub-plot, the death of a poor unfortunate man who just happens to have the same name as a well-known Magistrate, is left to Blume's colleague (and romantic partner) Caterina and the rest of the team. The pace of the investigation is rapid, although the storyline doesn't always serve that well with the action frequently getting bogged down in a lot of extraneous meanderings into complicated family setups, past and present activities and what seemed like a lot of dead-end alleyways.
The best part of the book was undoubtedly Blume, who is one of those classic strongly principled, but deeply flawed men. Struggling with commitment issues in his personal life, he's professionally decisive especially when it means he can avoid being quite so proactive personally. Although this did lead to a couple of scenes which, seemed somewhat disconnected from the main action, did provide some quite funny moments (I'm never going to park anywhere near a rubbish dump ever again in my life!),
The book also has a strong sense of place and culture. It felt quintessentially Italian in style and tone. Whilst it could very well be that people with more interest in things Mafia would find THE NAMESAKE works as a standalone, to be honest, I wish I'd read the earlier books first, but I'm definitely going to do just that.