RIVER OF SHADOWS - Valerio Varesi
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.
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?
Soneri's investigation meets with a wall of silence from those who make their living along the banks of river. As the fog descends and the valley is hidden once more, Soneri must navigate fifty-year-old loyalties and deep-rooted rivalries before he can find out the truth.