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.
DON VITO - Massimo Ciancimino & Francesco La Licata
Massimo Ciancimino, the youngest and closest son of former politician and mafia boss Vito Ciancimino, was barely eighteen when he was chosen by his father to be his general aide and initiated directly into the double life of the 'Mayor of the Corleones' - a world that he was part of until his arrest on the 6th June 2006. Over the last year he has been collaborating with magistrates to help shed light on both his father's dark secrets and forty years of links between the mafia and politics in Sicily
I like true crime books that tell me something about the circumstances and motivations for why people get into the situations that they do. I even like confessional true crime as long as it's not too self-serving or overtly engaged in historical rewriting. But I think I've just discovered that the subject, the crimes, the individuals have to be somebody that I have some sort of knowledge of, or connection with. Be it that they are from the same country, city or state as me, or maybe if it's something that is of universal interest. Alas my interest in the Mafia in Italy is very very limited and that really affected by experience with DON VITO.
Written by author Francesco La Licata along with the youngest son of mafia boss Vito, Massimo Ciancimino, DON VITO is the story of a Mafia boss known as the 'Mayor of the Corleones'. Massimo was the son closest to the former politician, the anointed boy for want of a better description, this book is about the people and the events that he was a very close observer of. The book attempts to shed some light on the details of Don Vito's life, his interactions, his contacts and his influence. There's some glimpses into family life with a man who, on the face of it, seemed emotionally withdrawn, stern, a bully to his family. Massimo seems to have had a life which was very much controlled and directed by a cold and stand-offish man with a mother who was mostly off to the side, perhaps thoroughly inhibited by the man she married.
It's not just Massimo's voice however, there are chapters from other viewpoints, including explanatory overviews from La Licata. I'm really not sure if it was these multiple voices, whether it was partly the interwoven names and names and names that kept being thrown into the narrative, or whether it was just that I was struggling for interest, but I just never quite seemed to be able to get who was who and what they were talking about straight in my head. Terminal confusion reigned from the start of the book to the finish and at the end of it, whilst I felt I'd been told a few things about the goings on in the Ciancimino household and their associates, I was really not too sure that I knew much more about the whys of the Mafia's influence and how somebody like Ciancimino, rather than any other of the Mafia hierarchy, in particular, got to where he did. That could very well have been the reader's fault, but I just found I couldn't get a handle on who or what and there didn't seem to be much attempt at why.
Perhaps this book is one more for observers of Mafia happenings, one more for people that really have an interest in the subject matter. Alas for me, DON VITO never quite engaged, never really told me anything in depth, never really peaked any interest in knowing more about the Mafia at all.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY - Michelle Giuttari
In the picturesque Tuscan hill town of Scandicci, the body of a girl is discovered. Scantily dressed, with no purse or other possessions, she is lying by the edge of the woods. The local police investigate the case - but after a week they still haven't even identified her, let alone got to the bottom of how she died.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY is the second book from former Florence police chief Michele Guittari, billed as a bestseller in Italy and translated into nine languages. I was particularly interested to read this as the first book A FLORENTINE DEATH had a number of elements which didn't work at all for me, and I wanted to see if this was first book syndrome or more to do with this particular author's style of storytelling.
A DEATH IN TUSCANY starts out with the discovery of the body of a girl near a small Tuscan hill town. Scantily dressed, no identification, the problem for police is discovering who she is - let alone who killed her. Stepping into lead the investigation is Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, head of Florence's elite Squadra Mobile, although he is soon distracted by conspiracies to the left and right of him.
Part of my problems with the first book was the overt self-aggrandisement of the central character - I don't think it was too much of a stretch to imagine that it's very much autobiographical, and frankly, the self-reverential tone got really tiresome, really quickly. The second book is only marginally better in this respect, as once again Ferrara seems to be the only person in the entire cast that knows anything, can see anything, understands the clues. Combine that with a plot that just simply did not work, and this book was very disappointing. At the centre of the story is the discovery of this young girl, who quickly becomes the catalyst for a crusade and much righteous (and reasonable) indignation at her fate. That is until Ferrara's best friend goes missing and he heads off in that direction. Which leaves the reader with absolutely no doubt whatsoever that somehow these two seemingly unconnected events will eventually be connected. Which was disappointingly drawn out and overly convoluted to the point where the whole plot became almost laughably contrived. Add to that the requisite shadowy influence of a secret society (in this case the Freemasons as well as the Mafia), political corruption, international drug running and a greatly put upon and misunderstood Ferrara and the whole thing not only lacked credibility, it got dangerously close to silly at points.
The action either lurched forward in chunks of Ferrara's personal brilliance, or bogged down in endless drives, bizarre chats, and detailed descriptions of procedural elements that frankly got so boring it was a real struggle to stay with the book. Which is a pity. Because the death of young people at the hands of sick adults in powerful positions should be a storyline that makes the reader stop and think about what's going on in the world.
THE WHISPERER - Donato Carrisi
Six buried arms. Six missing girls. A team led by Captain Roche and internationally renowned criminologist Goran Gavila are on the trail of a serial killer whose ferocity seems to have no limits. And he seems to be taunting them, leading them to discover each small corpse in turn; but the clues on the bodies point to several different killers.
You sometimes just have to wonder about the bravery of the people who select the blurbs for the front of books. THE WHISPERER, debut book by Italian author Donato Carrisi, comes with the attribution "The most eagerly awaited thriller in the world? It is written by an unknown Italian' Il Giornale". Now I'll be honest, this blurb really threw me, it seems to set high expectations, particularly for a debut novel.
The central thread of the book is the story of the discovery of six severed arms in a forest clearing without bodies, but identified by forensics as belonging to girls aged between eight and thirteen. There are five girls in that age group reported missing, but with no bodies identifying the victims isn't quick, and there are no clues about the owner of the sixth arm.
A close-knit team of investigators with Criminologist Goran Gavila as the central point is assigned the case. An experienced investigator, Gavila is naturally inclined towards being rebellious, but he has his working methods and he and his team and comfortable with each other. Mila Vasquez is a young female police officer with a difficult past, who is equally rebellious, boyish, prickly, unable to relate to others, but with an eerie ability to locate missing people. She's bought into Gavila's team for this case. They are able to work together well, his team aren't so easy for Mila to get on with.
The investigating team have a difficult task, as the bodies slowly starting to appear, they are looking for a serial killer, and the sixth victim - not reported missing and very possibly still alive. The killer seems to be leaving macabre clues with each discovery of a new body, and the team must move quickly and deftly to have a chance of keeping her alive.
I came away from THE WHISPERER really unsure about how I feel about the book. On the one hand it's an interesting, complex plot with some twists at the end that came as a big surprise. On the other hand there's yet another damaged investigator; a frisson of romance between the two central characters, a team that doesn't handle the imposition of an outsider well; a cast of characters with secrets. Combine all of that with yet another serial killer targeting children and there's a real sense of been there / done that if you read a lot of crime fiction. Of course it's unreasonable to assume that any book is going to be completely unique, and there are elements here that have a freshness about them. The pairing of a cop and a scientific investigator was well done - creating a different dynamic between the two central characters, shown up particularly by the cop versus cop tensions between Mila and the team. Also THE WHISPERER used the stagey, calculating way that the killer used his victims to play games with the investigating team in a chilling and uncomfortably realistic manner.
I think my greatest sense of disappointment in THE WHISPERER is that there was no particular sense of a place or a culture in which the killings are occurring. The location wasn't obvious, the book could have been set anywhere, so I never quite got a complete sense of reality, it somehow seemed to dissipate the threat. The damaged central investigator line also didn't quite work - it was almost too predictable, as was the romantic entanglement, and the rest of the team's antagonism. The antagonism seemed too broad brush, and whilst there is some attempt at explanation, some justification if you like, it was hard to move past the tension for tension's sake feeling.
Having said all of that, it's a good plot, with some cleverly done twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing, and will engage. The way the characters secrets are revealed works in the main, although some readers may agree that some of the elements are a tad unbelievable, even for fiction. Overall I came away conflicted, not sure enough to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but certainly not able to say that I didn't like it at all. But that's not so surprising with a debut book so I'd definitely read another by this author.
A FLORENTINE DEATH - Michele Giuttari
Michele Giuttari is a real-life Italian policeman, head of the Squadra Mobile for around 8 years in his own right, so it's not too much of a stretch to believe that his central protagonist, Michele Ferrara, is more than a little autobiographical. The author has allowed his character to be slightly quirky, but undoubtedly he is the hero of the piece, and given the cases that Giutarri investigated, including the Monster of Florence, the reader has to assume that some of the events aren't that far from real life as well.
As the bodies are found, seemingly pointlessly mutilated, we get to know Ferrara along the way. There is a very Italian feeling to these books, probably helped by sideways forays into the world of high opera and art, food and wine, to say nothing of the references to the architecture and layout of Florence. There is a strong sexual element to this book, and the plot itself is nicely complicated, but positioned firmly in something that seems oh so Italian - revenge. Whilst it's not that hard to pick the who, the how, and even take an educated guess at the why - the entire why is revealed late in the book, as the chase of the killer draws to its end.
There's not a lot of suspense in A FLORENTINE DEATH, and, on a few occasions, there is a slightly unpleasant worshipful tone around the central protagonist. The main clanger was some simply bizarre elements to the sexual assault of one of the female characters that could risk readers wanting to throw the book against a wall, but overall, somewhat unexpectedly, A FLORENTINE DEATH was still quite interesting. Even if you knew nothing of the author's background, there is a sense of reality about the way that the events are portrayed and there's a great sense of Florence and Italy about the book. The translation reads very smoothly in English, whilst still retaining a lovely feeling of an Italian lilt and sensibility.
A FLORENTINE DEATH is the first book by Michele Giuttari. The second, A DEATH IN TUSCANY, has recently been translated.
A VENETIAN RECKONING - Donna Leon
Rather than the normal method of being called out, Commisarrio Guido Brunetti learns of the death of prominent international lawyer Carlo Trevisan from the headlines in the newspaper the next day on the way to work.
What starts off as a baffling investigation of a seemingly blameless victim, turns into something altogether different as a suicide and another shooting see the death of a well-known Accountant, and then Trevisan's own brother-in-law. What is not immediately clear is why these three become victims.
Brunetti is desperate to find some clues about the victim's background and after finding his teenage daughter knows Trevisan's daughter, enlists her help in doing some digging into the background of the lawyer, despite his wife's firm objections.
A little flat in the early stages of the book, the plot of this book evolves slowly and can be a little predictable. To compensate there are some wonderful observations of the landscape and the nature of the Venetian people in particular.
This series is as much about Guido Brunetti, his family, his food and his wine as it is about Venetian life, crime and corruption. The only possible ongoing weakness in this series can be the frequent references to the corruption of Italian society, which although valid, can be repetitive. That is, however, a minor quibble.