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.
NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN - Guillermo Orsi
It is December 2001 and Argentina is in meltdown. Pablo Martelli, once in an elite branch of the police force known as the "National Shame", is a shadow of his former self, scraping by as a bathroom-appliance salesman. Late one evening, Martelli is summoned to a friend's coastal retreat. He arrives to find his friend dead, and is caught up in a bewildering odyssey that leads him though vast, empty pampas, along endless highways and into ghost towns seething danger and brutality, to the ailing heart of his country.
I came away from this book with a very strong sense of a culture that is profoundly different from my own, despite the idea that the main character Pablo Martelli seems to spend as much time driving great distances as we do. I also came away from this book with a profound sense of confusion. To this day, I'm really not sure what on earth was going on, I'm not even 100% that Martelli knew what was happening, and there were points when I wondered aloud if the author had the slightest idea what was supposed to be happening as well.
I won't be at all surprised to hear that many fans of straight up and down crime fiction find NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN profoundly boring, profoundly confusing, profoundly pointless or some combination thereof. It was all of that for this reader as well, although I stuck with it mostly because of a very strong sense of a culture, and because I just had this sneaking feeling that Martelli was as confused as I was. And I did kind of like him as a character, and every now and then I don't mind having no idea what's happening fictionally. Sort of seems to match life really. But this is really is an odd book, and I'm not sure I would recommend it to everyone, but if you're looking for something different, then NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN definitely meets that criteria.
UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST - Asa Larsson
In the first thaw of spring the body of a young woman surfaces in the River Torne in the far north of Sweden. Rebecka Martinsson is working a a prosecutor in nearby Kiruna. Her sleep has been disturbed by haunting visions of a shadowy, accusing figure. Could the body belong to the ghost in her dreams?
One of the most appealing aspects of the Rebecka Martinsson series from Asa Larsson has always been the strong sense of place and culture that the books seem to have as part of their DNA. The fourth book, UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST, is no slouch in this department at all.
The opening of the book is Wilma telling the story of the day that she and Simon died. Wilma's presence remains active within the book, encouraging Rebecka, slowly explaining her own story, drawing out the details. Her body, on the other hand isn't found for months after she dies. When it is, the question is whether or not their deaths are simply a diving trip that went wrong or is it, as Rebecka is sure, murder. It's partly the idea that the victim has a voice which is sensed by Rebecka, partly the setting and the location of the death that really give this particular book the ongoing strong sense of place and culture. But there's also something about the interactions of the characters within the book, and obviously, the weather and location that contribute strongly as well.
Given that all the books in this series intertwine a lot of the personal story of Rebecka, and increasingly so her colleague Anna-Maria Mella, there's a good balancing act going on. UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST does have a lot of voices telling this story, and there are a lot of characters moving through the narrative. and to be frank, the strength of the plot for this one is probably not it's strongest point. The murder plot wasn't completely convincing, although the people involved and the ongoing glimpses the reader is given of small-town, remote Sweden do make up for any such deficiencies. I must admit that from the start of this series, it's Rebecka, and now increasingly Anna-Maria that hold my attention, as their presence builds, I'll happily return to this series to discover what's happening with them in particular.
And that's possibly the only downside to these books, of which UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST is now the fourth in the series. It's a series that might be best read in order. Rebecka's backstory is intrinsic to who she is, and how you go about understanding her decisions, her choice to work out in this remote, isolated part of Sweden. Anna-Maria is slightly easier to come to grips with, although hers is a story that is slowly evolving and seems to be coming more to the fore. Whilst it could very well be possible to pick this book up as your starting point, personally, I fear you'd be missing out on a quite a bit. Which, if you've not read the three earlier Rebecka Martinsson books, just means you're in for a bit of a treat.