Italy

The Savage Shore – David Hewson

Title – The Savage Shore

Author – David Hewson

Published – 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, a continuation of the Nic Costa series which saw the last book (Fallen Angel) published in 2011. I had been enjoying the series and worried that we’d heard the last of Costa and his colleagues, so I was thrilled to hear that another book was coming.

The team that you would be familiar with if you’ve read the earlier books are in Calabria, in the south of Italy and far away from their comfort zone. They are there to try to arrange the extraction of the elusive head of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian version of the Mafia, who is also offering up the overlord of the Costa Nostra – the most wanted man in Italy. The assignment is cloaked in secrecy, including the reason behind the man’s approach to the police and his intention to turn state’s witness. The high-stakes and sparse information don’t make this a comfortable assignment.

Costa is required to go undercover with the man’s family and must prove himself in a number of ways before he will be accepted by those in the ’Ndrangheta. This offers a few thrills and is a test of Costa’s metal. Once he has been accepted the story twists and turns as the opportunity comes for the authorities to make their move.

While Costa has the main part of the story there is an interesting aside for Peroni, who strikes up a friendship with a young widow running a small waterfront cafe. It seems that organised crime affects every one in the community and true to character Peroni risks the group’s cover to step in.

Background to the history of the location and the ’Ndrangheta is provided by extracts from the fictional ‘Calabrian Tales’ which weaves its own set of myths and legends alongside the rise of the Bergamotti family, their traditions and their values.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this series of books and Costa has been an interesting character to follow as he has developed. He takes his role-play a little too seriously and there are some thought-provoking incidents while he is undercover and towards the end of the story.

I really enjoyed the mix of thriller/mystery, the unusual location and the historical aspects to the story, and I thought these worked well using the extracts of text rather than having a character ‘telling’ lots of information. The place and people offer a glimpse of a way of life that’s long gone for most people and the vivid writing easily conjures up this new location. There are even a few meals thrown in for good measure (not quite to the level of Camilleri, but mouth-watering nevertheless).  And it’s always good when a book you’ve been looking forward to delivers.

Many thanks to the publisher for the Net Galley.

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Two short reviews – Antti Tuomainen & Nadia Dalbuono

A couple of short reviews in an effort to clear the ‘read but not yet reviewed’ stack.

519xkpynnPLTitle – Dark as my Heart

Author – Antti Tuomainen (translated by Lola Rogers)

Published – Oct 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

Finland has perhaps been one of the smaller forces in the wave of Scandi and Nordic noir so it’s difficult to know if this take on crime fiction is typical of the Finnish contribution.

The story is told from an unusual perspective – the premise is that the murderer (responsible for the disappearance of a young woman some twenty years ago) is already known from the beginning  of the book. The guilty party is a reclusive millionaire who the police have been unable to link to the woman’s disappearance. Her son Aleksi, now in his thirties, decides to take matters into his own hands and manages to get a job working on the man’s country estate. The story is told from Aleksi’s point of view (and in first person) both in the present and as flashbacks to the time around his mother’s disappearance. As Aleksi tries to unravel the events of the past and find the evidence he needs he is drawn into a relationship with the millionaire’s reckless daughter Amanda.

There are some recognisable themes from ‘Nordic Noir’ with dark characters, isolation playing a key aspect in the tension and some graphic violence. However, I found the writing slow going, a lot of use was made of coincidences and I didn’t care enough about the characters. I am perhaps  in the minority, though, as Dark as My Heart was optioned for feature film in 2013 and is in development at Making Movies Ltd, the production company behind the Finnish film Black Ice. The novel has also been voted the best crime novel of the past decade by the readers of a Finnish crime fiction magazine.

You can see a more positive review on Raven’s blog.


 

51T1XZu41pLTitle – The American

Author – Nadia Dalbuono

Published – Jan 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

I was keen to read this book as I’m a fan of crime fiction set in Italy – it can offer a more relaxed approach to police procedurals compared to books set in the UK or USA and of course there is the opportunity to be transported to somewhere more exotic.

The book opens with the apparent suicide of a man discovered hanging from a bridge in Rome close to the Vatican City. The detective assigned to the case – Leone Scamarcio – is concerned that the death echoes the notorious murder of Roberto Calvi (‘God’s Banker’) in 1982. The murder a few days later of a cardinal within the Vatican City and a warning by some mysterious heavies from the ‘US Authorities’ guarantee that Scamarcio is more rather than less interested in getting to the bottom of the death.

What follows is a mix of police procedural and thriller made more complex by the introduction of conspiracy theories around 9/11, the Polish Solidarity party, corruption in the Vatican and acts of terror within Italy. The actual effect of this was to slow down the pace of the investigative part of the plot to expand on the theories with background and explanation and I found it all too detailed and complex to hold my interest.

What I found particularly disappointing about this book was that it felt as if it could have been set anywhere – I prefer my crime fiction to give me a better, more immersive, feel for the country it is set in.

You can see another point of view on the Euro Crime website.

Thank you to the publishers for the review copies.

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And Then You Die – Michael Dibdin

717lXEZgjoL-2Title – And Then You Die

Author – Michael Dibdin

Published – 2002

Genre – Crime fiction

Like most other bloggers, I started  my  blog with reviews of books I already owned and while it’s lovely to be given review copies, I’m still buying and being given books as presents that I  want  to read. So for September I’m skipping review copies and catching up on my own books.

One (of many) series that I am behind on are the Italian-set books by Michael Dibdin featuring Inspector Aurelio Zen. And Then You Die is the eight book in the series which started with CWA Gold Dagger winning Ratking in 1988. Despite his English roots Dibdin set the series in Italy and Zen is by birth a Venetian who has spent most of the series living and working in different areas of Italy. In Blood Rain, which preceded And Then You Die, Zen had been in Sicily and attracted the ire of the Mafia, ending in a devastating explosion.

And Then You Die opens in the coastal town of Versilia where Zen is both recuperating and lying low, but while he is trying to remain inconspicuous and blending in with the locals on the beach, a fellow sunbather is discovered dead. Those trying to ensure his protection in advance of a Mafia trial decide to move him and the first half of the book sees him relocated several times, with some more seemingly coincidental calamities wherever he goes. While the story is quite entertaining it’s not exactly gripping.

Finally, he is able to return to Rome where he is invited to head up a new specialist division and offered the opportunity to return to Versilia prior to taking up this role. This enables Zen to follow up on a love interest that had been hinted at during his earlier stay. Before he can become too involved, a face from the past returns and many of the loose ends from Blood Rain are tied up. This latter half of the book has more action, but still there’s nothing what I would recognise as a typical police procedural and felt more like a farce. I guess it didn’t help that it was some time since I had read Blood Rain and I don’t remember the story in enough detail to be overly worried by the previous events. Returning to the series Zen seems a somewhat diminished character and the book lack the dark humour I remembered from the before – or perhaps I’m just remembering it fondly…

At just 279 pages the book is more of a novella than a full length novel. For me, what it lacked in pages it also sadly lacked in plot. A disappointing read.

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The Whisperer – Donato Carrisi

Title – The Whisperer

Author – Donato Carrisi (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Published – 2009 (translated 2010)

Genre – Crime fiction

I treated myself to this book a while ago when I felt I needed to read more gritty Italian crime fiction.

The severed left arms of 6 young girls are found in a forest clearing. Five little girls have been kidnapped over the course of a week. But there are six arms…

The investigation is being led by criminologist Dr Goran Gavila – to say that he is troubled would be an understatement! Assigned, begrudgingly, to assist him is Mila Vasquez, an expert in finding missing children. Mila is herself a dark character with some uncomfortable personal traits.

I found it hard not to draw comparisons between Mila Vasquez and Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s novels, and for me Salander would come out as the more likeable character.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading Italian crime fiction is for the setting – it doesn’t matter to me that there may be dirty deeds – as long as there’s some Italian scenery to absorb. So my first disappointment with this book has to be that it wasn’t set anywhere. Sorry  – that probably doesn’t make sense. The setting was placeless, not really specific to anywhere, any country, which left me feeling a little lost (as well as disappointed).

This is described as “Italian Literary Fiction” and I can only assume that this is because of the large sections of seemingly unnecessary prose.

I happened to meet some fellow bloggers while I was reading this and did say that I couldn’t recommend it, but there were twists and turns that were yet to come that perhaps would make me re-think this statement. I did enjoy the murder-mystery element of the book (although there were some unpleasant aspects to it) but couldn’t warm to the investigators and felt the whole book lacked any atmosphere.

You can see more thoughts about this book over at Farm Lane Books.

Score – 3/5

A Private Venus – Giorgio Scerbanenco

Title – A Private Venus

Author – Giorgio Scerbanenco (translated by Howard Curtis)

Published – Aug 2012

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the first English translation of this Duca Lamberti novel from renowned Italian crime fiction author Giorgio Scerbanenco. Originally published in 1966 this was the first in the series.

Although born in Kiev with a Russian father and Italian mother, Scerbanenco grew up in Italy and when he was in his late teens his family settled in Milan. The book includes an introduction with some helpful background to the author & the setting of Milan in the late 1960’s. Unless you have personal experience of a place or time that book is set in it can be difficult to put the events into context. This is even more noticeable when the book was written at the time and the author had no need to provide any background!

The story feels very dark – it’s not surprising that Scerbanenco is seen as the father of Italian noir. The characters themselves are flawed – Duca Lamberti is just out of prison after serving three years for the murder of a patient. He is contacted by Engineer Pietro Auserolo, a humourless man who is trying to find someone to help cure his twenty-two year old son, Davide,  of alcoholism. His approach can be summed up in “I would rather he was dead than an alcoholic”. Despite this he obviously cares about his son & is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help him.

Lamberti accepts the job and after Auserolo makes the introductions he leaves the doctor and patient together. Lamberti believes that there must be a reason for Davide’s incessant drinking but he tries not to force the issue – taking the opposite approach to Davide’s father. Lamberti’s approach pays off quickly and he soon learns the reason that Davide feels driven to drink. Not only does he find out the full story that lead to Davide’s current situation, but he also finds what may be a clue to a young girl’s murder, and that’s when the story becomes even darker – with prostitution and pornography as well as murder.

To be honest it isn’t especially graphic, but the darkness of the story is unrelenting – no flashes of humour here to lighten the mood! In comparison to a lot of current crime fiction the details feel a little tame, but as a whole it makes grim reading. The only character who seems to have a brighter side is Livia, a girl who followed the proceedings of Lamberti’s trial and is something of a fan. But she has a dark background  – a fascination with the idea of prostitution, and although Lamberti is drawn to her, he treats her dreadfully, with quite gruesome consequences.

There are two aspects of the story that I found particularly difficult. Firstly, every woman, with the exception of Lamberti’s sister, is willing to prostitute herself. It feels more like the writer’s view of women than a statement about how women behaved in Milan at the time – but I’m no expert. The second is the writing surrounding one of the characters who is homosexual. For the most part the character is referred to as “the homosexual” when he’s not being called “the pederast” or “the mutant”. Uncomfortable reading and all I can say is that we’ve come along way!

I quite enjoyed the story and I would be interested to see if more titles are translated and how Lamberti’s character develops, but this wasn’t an easy read.  Many thanks to Hersilia Press for the review copy.

You can see more thoughts about this book over at Killing Time.

Score – 3/5

The Wife Who Ran Away – Tess Stimson

Title – The Wife Who Ran Away

Author – Tess Stimson

Published – 2012

Genre – Contemporary fiction

Another short review – and another book courtesy of Pan Macmillan. If I were to run away (which is pretty unlikely) then Italy is where I would head for – so I was drawn to the premise of this book.

With a husband who doesn’t seem to notice her, a teenage daughter who is becoming unruly, a demanding mother and problems at work, Kate makes a snap decision to escape it all. She gets into a taxi in her lunch hour, goes to the airport and the next thing she knows she’s knocking on the door of an old friend in Italy.

Although this all seems very spontaneous, there is some background to her escape which, as Stimson slowly lets the reader discover, may explain the out of character behaviour.

The story is told from multiple perspectives – Kate, her husband, step-son, daughter and mother. As she doesn’t tell anyone that she’s leaving, it’s interesting to see how they each deal with her disappearance, and indeed how long it takes them to notice that she’s gone. It also shows the contrast between how she thinks the various members of her family will feel, and what they really make of the situation. The one jarring aspect for me, though, was the difference between what her husband thought about the situation and what he said & did about it – but perhaps that’s what men are like!

Although she arrives in Italy with no intention of doing anything other than turning round and going home, she somehow finds herself with a job and a flat. All in just a few weeks!

I have to say this was a bit on the raunchy side for me. There’s nothing like trying to read on the train & praying that the man next to you can’t see any of the words on the pages you’re reading!

I found the story pretty slow going, although when an incident at home threatened to force Kate into making a decision I felt the story picked up the pace.

Score – 3/5

I Will Have Vengeance – Maurizio de Giovanni

Title – I Will Have Vengeance

Author – Maurizio de Giovanni (translated by Anne Milano Appel)

Published – Feb 2012

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the first English translation of a novel by Maurizio de Giovanni, an award-winning Italian crime fiction author.

The setting is Naples, 1937, a fascist Italy under Mussolini (Il Duce) and the evocative descriptions by de Giovanni show a country being divided by politics into the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Although the book isn’t overly heavy on the period detail there is enough to demonstrate the hardships being felt by many. It’s the small details which give the sense of the era, for example a detective who wears a hairnet to bed.

Our investigator is Commissario Ricciardi, who follows in the tradition of much crime fiction by being “troubled”, however his problem is quite unusual. To (mis) quote M. Night Shyamalan “he sees dead people”. As a boy he discovered that he sometimes sees the dead. Just those who have died violently, and what he sees captures their last expression and their final words. This “ability” makes Ricciardi a solemn and determined man with few friends, but also means that he has an uncanny knack of solving murders. He cuts a solitary figure, both at home and at work, although he does show a softer side in his unspoken admiration of a neighbour.

The case he is called to investigate is the brutal murder of one of the world’s greatest tenors, Maestro Vezzi, who has been found dead in his dressing room moments before he was due to perform. Unfortunately for Ricciardi, Vezzi is a favourite of Il Duce, and there is pressure from the Vice Questura to find a quick resolution.

Ricciardi and his assistant, Brigadier Maione, have to untangle the puzzle of how Vezzi was murdered and who could have entered his dressing room to perpetrate the crime in the middle of a performance. In the course of the investigation they discover that Vezzi was almost universally disliked, but they still struggle to find anyone who would have killed him. In order to better understand the events Ricciardi has to lean more about the operas being performed, and as a non-opera person I found this aspect interesting.

The book is short compared to many published at the moment – which makes a pleasant change, and the pace feels unhurried, but never loses the reader’s interest. This is classic crime fiction with a simple puzzle at its heart, a sympathetic lead character, and something of a moral dilemma.

To me this feels similar to the series by Andrea Camilleri, although there’s a lot less eating involved. The subject is perhaps darker than Camilleri’s writing, but the perios Italian setting, the determination of the lead character for justice and the simplicity of the well-told murder-mystery is reminiscent of his style.

I hope that the rest of the series featuring Ricciardi is translated, as I very much look forward to reading more.

Score – 4/5

Carnival for the Dead – David Hewson

Title – Carnival for the Dead

Author – David Hewson

Published – January 2012

Genre – Crime fiction

I don’t think it’s a secret that I am a huge fan of David Hewson’s writing, and I have been eagerly awaiting the latest installment in the “Costa” series. For me the joy of reading one of these books is the combination of excellent prose,  a complex puzzle and often a hint of something more mysterious. It’s a relief to say that Carnival for the Dead doesn’t disappoint.

Carnival for the Dead is a variation on a theme, featuring forensic pathologist Teresa Lupo as the central character rather than the more familiar Nic Costa. The book sees a return to Venice (the setting for the earlier title in the series “The Lizard’s Bite”) as Lupo travels there with her mother following the mysterious disappearance of her  favourite Aunt, Sofia.  When Sofia’s apartment yields no apparent clues as to her whereabouts Lupo becomes concerned that something sinister has happened. She decides to stay in the apartment while she undertakes to search for her, quickly sending her mother home.

Her search is aided by a serious of cryptic stories which are mysteriously delivered to Sofia’s home. Although they have a “supernatural” feel to them they also bear an increasingly uncanny resemblance to her ongoing search for Sofia. But who is sending them? Is it Sofia, or someone who wants to help, and why can’t they just come forward and speak directly to Lupo?

With the rest of the usual team unavailable to help her, Lupo accepts the help of Alberto Tosi the (now retired) city pathologist, believing that he will have some influence with the local police. Unfortunately Carnival means the police are too busy to help with Lupo’s “mystery”, so she and Tosi attempt to carry on the investigation without them, even when there is a murder which Lupo believes is somehow connected to Sofia’s disappearance.

Venice is as much a character in this tale as Lupo herself. Set in February (the time of the Carnival) this isn’t the city most tourists will see – it’s cold, in fact there’s snow and ice, it’s dark and the masks and costumes of those taking part in the Carnival itself add to the sinister atmosphere.

I know that there is a suggestion that this may be the last in the “Costa” series, but I sincerely hope that isn’t the case. There are plenty of authors who have pursued a series for far too long, but Hewson has shown that applying a different perspective on the stories is an excellent way to ensure the reader’s continued interest.

A story with well-observed characters, a gripping mystery and all in the atmospheric setting of Venice – what more could you ask for!

Score – 4/5 (or 4.5 if I allowed half marks!)

Death in August – Marco Vichi

Title – Death in August

Author – Marco Vichi

Published – 2002 (UK translation 2011)

Genre – Crime fiction

A long time fan of Italian crime fiction, and a relative newcomer to the Andrea Camilleri / Montalbano series, made this first translation in the Bordelli series seem like a natural addition to my reading pile. Not only that but I had also heard positive things on crime fiction blog Milo’s Rambles.

Florence, summer 1963. Inspector Bordelli is one of the few policemen left in the deserted city. He spends his days on routine work, and his nights tormented by the heat and mosquitoes.

Suddenly one night, a telephone call gives him a new sense of purpose: the suspected death of a wealthy Signora. Bordelli rushes to her hilltop villa, and picks the locks. The old woman is lying on her bed – apparently killed by an asthma attack, though her medicine has been left untouched.

With the help of his young protégé, the victim’s eccentric brother, and a semi-retired petty thief, the inspector begins a murder investigation. Each suspect has a solid alibi, but there is something that doesn’t quite add up . . .

This is gentle crime fiction, harking back to classics like Agatha Christie. No gratuitous violence, no swearing, and no car chases. So if you need all or any of the above then this probably isn’t the book for you. Instead you have a death which doesn’t even, at first glance, appear to be suspicious. When the investigation into the murder does get underway there’s only a short list of suspects who have a motive, but seemingly not an opportunity.  Above all it is the puzzle of the who and the how that are at the heart of the story. And for this we have the company of Bordelli, an old-fashioned (this is set in 1963 after all) chain-smoking police Inspector.

Bordelli has taken a young policeman under his wing and between them they set about solving the mystery. They’re aided by an odd group of Bordelli’s friends, including an ex-convict and a petty thief. This does seem to give Bordelli the opportunity for some rather long rambling reminiscences about his childhood and his service during the war.  

Nevertheless they manage to solve the mystery, and without the aid of mobile phones, the internet or guns. In fact Bordelli has a “eureka” moment when it all slots into place. So will you get there before he does?

The book felt quite familiar, as if I was reading something from the Camilleri / Montalbano series, and I wasn’t surprised to see that the same translator (Stephen Sartarelli) had worked on both. This certainly explains the similarity of the language between the two authors.

I think my disappointment with this book was how little Florence featured in the story. Part of my enjoyment in reading books set in foreign climes is their ability to transport you to somewhere more exotic, but although there was the heat and oppression of a summer in Florence, there was very little mention made of the city itself.

Nevertheless I’ll be looking out for the next translation in the series.

Score – 3/5

The Fallen Angel – David Hewson

Title – The Fallen Angel

Author– David Hewson

Published – Feb 2011

Genre – Crime

I have only discovered David Hewson fairly recently, and when offered the opportunity to read a proof copy of the soon to be published “The Fallen Angel” I wasn’t going to say no.

When the sins of the past echo the crimes of the present – Detective Nic Costa faces his hardest case yet. When British academic Malise Gabriel falls to his death from a Rome apartment, detective Nic Costa rapidly comes to realize that there is much more to the accident than he had first thought. It also becomes apparent that Malise’s family – mysterious and tragic daughter Mina, stoic wife Cecilia and troubled son Robert – may be keeping vital information hidden. Nic becomes obsessed with the case, and is especially intrigued by Mina’s story which seems to be linked with the sixteenth century-legend of a young Italian noblewoman, Beatrice Cenci. As the investigation deepens, Rome’s dark and seedy side is uncovered, revealing a web of deceit, treachery and corruption. Costa realizes that the key to the truth lies with the Gabriels. Why are they so unwilling to co-operate, and who, or what, is the reason for their silence?

This is the latest in the Nic Costa series of Hewson’s contemporary roman crime thrillers. If you haven’t come across this series, Costa is an unusual character to take the lead in a detective novel – a young(ish) Italian detective with a sensitive side and an appreciation of his roman heritage.

The book gets down to business pretty quickly, with the death of a British academic who has been living in Rome with his family. Investigation of the mysterious death stalls when his family seems to be reluctant to contribute to the investigation, however Costa develops a friendship with the dead man’s daughter which provides him with an insight into their relationships.

A feature of Hewson’s books is the blending of modern Rome with historical aspects – in this case the story of the Cenci family in the 16th century with murder, intrigue and ultimately papal justice. There seems to be an echo of this old legend within the modern-day mystery, and the preoccupation of the characters with the past is an important feature of the story. The author obviously knows the city well & has done his research as he brings the story to life on the hot and dusty streets of Rome, but without letting the setting get in the way of the narrative.

The development of the investigation depends upon relationships – both unravelling the relationships within this family and the relationships of the team of detectives, but at the end of the day this is a complex but cracking, well–paced detective story.

Don’t be put off if you haven’t read previous books in the series (although you should!) – there’s enough background along the way to fill in any gaps.

Score – 4/5