Review - MURDER ON THE 18TH GREEN, Frederico Maria Rivalta
The Euganean Hills golf community in northern Italy is a golfer’s paradise. With a perpetual smell of freshly cut grass, rolling green plains, and bright blue skies, it seems nothing could go wrong for the tight-knit group that lives there.
Laid back as the residents of Euganean Hills environment may be, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to blow-in, and investigative journalist, Riccardo Ranieri who has tense, nervous and put-upon down pat.
Starting out reading MURDER ON THE 18TH GREEN, there is the distinct possibility that Ranieri is going to annoy some readers. He’s an odd sort of combination of ego and vulnerability, sincerity and glibness that makes him very hard to pick in the beginning. It doesn’t hurt that for a man who, on moving to this country location, has availed himself of the companionship of two beautiful German Shepherds who he obviously loves. It doesn’t help that his attitude towards their care and feeding seems somewhat haphazard, even allowing for the difficult circumstances Ranieri finds himself in, what with being the man who discovers a friends body, getting shot, finding himself investigating the death, and his own shooting, annoying his neighbours, the police, and half the golf club members along the way. None of which seems to bother him a bit, until it starts to bother him a lot. Needless to say he’s a wonderfully frustrating character and endlessly fascinating. Which is just as well as he’s also just about the entire focus of this novel, although there are some standout cameos from his police bodyguard and others.
There’s such a strong sense of culture and attitude about this novel, that is sweetened all the more by a dry and understated sense of humour. Readers that get that a large percentage of Ranieri’s ego is tempered beautifully with his own ability to poke fun at himself will find him engaging. The plot for the novel is also nicely played out, although to be honest, the ultimate killer might not be that hard to pick, but the machinations along the way are well worth following. This is a lot more about why than necessarily who or how.
Often funny, very engaging, MURDER ON THE 18TH GREEN is well worth a look, although, it might make you think twice about a sauna after a round of golf.
Review - THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA, Piero Chiara
When the sad, beautiful Signora Giulia goes missing without a trace from her Lake Como villa home, it is her husband who reports her disappearance to the detective Sciancalepre, and so the search begins - one that takes Sciancalepre beneath the tranquil surface of local bourgeois society, a world of snobbery and secrets, while mysterious shadows lurk in the grounds of the family villa . . . As his investigation gathers pace this atmospheric classic detective story becomes a thrilling game of legal cat and mouse.
Wonderfully evocative, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA imparts much information about the society in which it is set in a short, but beautifully balanced novel.
When Signora Giulia goes missing, police detective Sciancalepre follows the investigation with dogged determination over a number of years. For much of this time it seems that the Signora has simply vanished into thin air. No body is found, nor are there sightings of her that lead to more than new questions. Coming from a small village as they all do, there is however, much gossip about her taciturn, older lawyer husband; about her marriage; and the possibility that she had a much younger lover.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA is a fascinating book - immersed as it is in the place from which it comes, it gives the reader a feeling of being in somewhere completely different, despite it being translated for accessibility. Sciancalepre is somebody that you feel that you'd know if were to come across him in a little cafe, the same with the Signora's husband and his eventual estrangement from his daughter, and the way that he withdraws from his life with his wife, leaving their shared home is quite moving. The way that he starts to appear quietly in the night in the garden of that house, only to be seen by his daughter and new son-in-law is restrained in the telling, but moving nonetheless. Obviously this is a man who is hiding something - but is he the killer of his wife, or does he still mourn for her?
As well as those character study elements, there's a nicely twisting plot here with lots of possible answers to the fate of Signora Giula, some of which the reader will guess, some of which will come as a surprise. Combine that with the perfect ending for this style of novel (and one most definitely not for fans of absolutes) THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA is a taste of Italy, granted without the elaborate food descriptions of more well known series, but with everything else you could possibly ask for.
Review - THE DARK, VM Giambanco
Seattle Homicide Detective Alice Madison is bound to jailed murderer John Cameron and attorney Nathan Quinn by a debt that cannot be repaid, by a nightmare that changed their lives forever.
When the remains of Quinn’s younger brother – murdered when he was a boy – are discovered in a shallow grave, Madison vows to follow the trail of brutal deaths that leads to the truth.
A sadistic killer stalks the investigation as Madison’s own demons threaten her future career with the police and darkness closes in. How far is she prepared to go to save a life?
The Dark is Valentina Gaimbanco's follow up to her debut novel The Gift of Darkness. The events of the new novel follow hard on the heels of the first and in some ways, this sequel fills in much of the backstory of key characters from her debut. Set in and around Seattle, the novel is full of twisted souls and moody scenery and Giambanco effectively ratchets up the tension from early on.
Detective Alice Madison is still psychologically scarred by the events of the previous novel which saw her hunting down Salinger, the man who kidnapped her godchild. She was helped in that search by a lawyer, Nathan Quinn, and his dangerous client, old friend and suspected killer Jack Cameron. At the start of The Dark, Madison is in therapy, Quinn is in hospital and Cameron is in solitary confinement for his own safety. When the remains of Nathan's brother, killed 25 years earlier, are found in the same forest where she battled Salinger for her life and Nathan puts a public bounty on information leading to his brother's killer, Madison is drawn back into the orbit of the lawyer and the killer.
The Dark can be confusing at first for those who who haven't read The Gift of Darkness, particularly with its two prologues and short point of view jumps. But it does not take long to pick up the character threads and the new threat that emerges as the cold case starts to heat up. The Dark quickly becomes compulsive as details of the past emerge and the threat starts to materialise in the form of a gang of resourceful killers. Giambanco intercuts the stories of Madison, Cameron and Quinn to great effect as the climax rushes forward, her only slip being to cut away from Cameron just as he is at his most vulnerable.
The plot contains many familiar elements of the genre - a cold case, a rookie detective drawn into breaking the rules and forming a relationship with criminals and moments of extreme violence. Giambanco has managed to put all of this together into a thrilling package with memorable characters and, for an expat Italian living in London, a real sense of place.
Review - THE WINGS OF THE SPHINX, Andrea Camilleri
Things are not going well for Inspector Salvo Montalbano. His relationship with Livia is once again on the rocks and-acutely aware of his age-he is beginning to grow weary of the endless violence he encounters. Then a young woman is found dead, her face half shot off and only a tattoo of a sphinx moth giving any hint of her identity. The tattoo links her to three similarly marked girls-all victims of the underworld sex trade-who have been rescued from the Mafia night-club circuit by a prominent Catholic charity.
The 11th Montalbano book this is a series that I'm tragically reading out of order, behind the publication dates and sadly not often enough.
Of course fans know about the food, and the scenery, and the grumpiness of Montalbano. Combine that with the vague lunacy of the members of the rest of the police force he has to work with and there's a sense of affection about these books.
Which stands out markedly against the relationships that Montalbano has with everyone including his on/off/distant/what exactly is their relationship girlfriend Livia.
Around this investigation, which revolves largely around the difficulties in identifying the dead woman, Montalbano's relationship with Livia is off again - and this time it seems terminal.
So stand by for a lot of soul searching, and dithering about with she said / he said / or they simply said nothing because neither wanted to pick up the phone. Add to that the standard pressures from above, the side and below with Montalbano's team also supposed to be investigating the kidnapping of a local man - who everyone, but his wife, thinks has done a runner.
If you love this series, then there's really not a bad book, although there are favoured ones. Perhaps because of the heavy concentration on the relationship between Montalbano and Livia, this does bog a bit on occasion. In the same way that finishing the chocolate dessert might get a bit tricky at the end of a fabulous meal. As always, the real problem with this series is that it's impossible to read any of them and not be hungry. And somewhat disappointed that your fridge doesn't reveal the sorts of delicacies that Montalbano's does.
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.
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.
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.