The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini
One of the litmus tests for the quality of any book is the extent to which it inspires the reader to thought. In this case, The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini (translated by N S Thompson) (Quercus Books, 2013) and the first of an intended trilogy featuring Commissario Michele Balistreri, persuades me to spend a little time thinking about the nature of corruption. For some who prefer questions to be answered in strictly black-and-white terms, it’s simply a situation in which money changes hands to adjust the expected outcome. Yet the reality is rather more subtle. In every culture, there are norms of behaviour and we judge the extent to which people conform by assessing whether they aspire to the ideals they claim to uphold. So, for example, authority figures might be expected to be role models, leading by their example. Or religious figures might be expected to clearly demonstrate a sincere belief in the tenets of their faith and avoid hypocrisy. Or those in political positions might be expected to take decisions for the benefit of society as a whole and not use their office for personal gain. It’s not necessary for money to change hands. People can be influenced into departing from the behaviour expected of them by the promise of favours or by withholding a threat. It can be small scale or systemic depending on the likelihood the manipulation will be discovered and those involved held accountable. In some societies, there’s a perfect storm when the majority of those in the interlocking positions within the government, judiciary, policing agencies and religious institutions are willing to abuse their power for personal gain (in the broadest sense of the word).
So if we take Italy as an example, there’s an inherent imbalance between secular and religious power. With the Holy See sitting as a separate sovereign state in the heart of Rome and exercising power over Catholics around the world, there’s always going to be pressure on the political classes not to antagonise or undermine the Pope and the administration of the Church. Then you have the rump of the nobility which has survived as a part of the elite alongside the upwardly mobile rich, and the aggressively criminal vie with extremists from both the left and right to ensure a rich blend of influences when it comes to critical decision-making. Yet if there’s one thing that captures the Italian spirit, it’s that corruption is never really seen as morally wrong. It’s merely getting your own way by cunning. You should therefore not be surprised that a recent report from Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated about 10% of all the public contracts awarded by local and central government were affected by corruption. That’s billions of pounds, dollars or, if you’re desperate, Euros.
So people like Michele Balistreri are an easily recognised symptom of an interesting social phenomenon. When he did his teenage rebellion, he went out to an extreme but, when the group stopped being political and decided to become more terrorist oriented, he did a deal through his father who was a police chief. He signed up as a supergrass and, when many of the group were rounded up, he suddenly found he had a degree and a sinecure in the Rome police force as a Captain in an undemanding neighborhood. Yet instead of becoming everything he despised, he abused his position to treat the work less than seriously, engage in serial womanising, drink, smoke and gamble. All this would probably have led to an early grave through excess but, in 1982, Elisa Sordi is murdered. This proves to be a watershed. He thinks he’s cracked the case but, just as the triumphant arrest is made, the rug is pulled and evidence emerges showing the suspect could not be guilty. His boss is old and close to retirement so takes the blame to protect the young firebrand. We then move forward to 2006 and find Balistreri playing the difficult political game of protecting a small crew of firebrands from themselves in a less than popular unit.
People deal with guilt in a number of different ways. Balistreri has never forgotten the catastrophic failure to get justice for the working class family that lost its beautiful daughter. When his conscience is further pricked by the suicide of Elisa’s mother, he decides he has to reopen the case. Except he rapidly discovers this is going to expose everyone in his team to danger. In Italy, once a crime goes cold, it’s supposed to stay that way, particularly when the truth might threaten the interests of the nobility or the Vatican.
Let’s now offer a hypothesis: that moral men are never going to prosper in the senior ranks of the Italian police. Whereas saints find their own niche in the Church, considerable political adaptability is required to avoid being scapegoated when the better organised are planning how to deflect blame if they are suspected of wrongdoing. Balistreri has seen it all in a long career and he’s strongly into survival mode until he’s forced to acknowledge that the safe way is never going to catch the killer from 1982. What makes this search all the more urgent is that there seems to be a link between new bodies and the deaths in 1982. Perhaps more importantly, the latent racism against the Roma community is being stirred up. If these new deaths are tied to this community, the reaction could be violent. So this is homicide resonating with political significance at the highest levels in Rome’s local government and at a national level. The challenge for Balistreri is to keep his team alive and on track to catch all those involved.
The result is a completely riveting police procedural. We see the original investigation come unstuck and watch the same thing threatening to happen again as people continue to lie or refuse co-operation. This is the eternal problem for any police force. Unless the community consents to the policing activity and supports it by passing on reliable information, the police will never collect enough evidence to secure convictions. There’s uncertainty as to who killed Elisa right up to the end and, when we have the answer, the question is whether Balistreri is better off with that knowledge. Sometimes success in an endeavour does not bring the redemption you are seeking. The Deliverance of Evil is a masterclass in the extent of the privilege and patronage that permeates Italian society and the problems a motivated police officer faces when he tries to find a killer among the ranks of the powerful. It runs slightly long but is never less than thought-provoking. This should be required reading for everyone who enjoys police procedurals and thrillers.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.