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Death in the Dolomites by David P Wagner

November 19, 2014 6 comments

Death in the Dolomites vt David P Wagner

I’m toying with the idea of describing Death in the Dolomites by David P Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) as “efficient”, but I’m not sure this is quite the right word. This is the second book to feature Rick Montoya, a bilingual Italian/American who lives in Italy and makes his living as a translator. As such, the book has to confront a number of different problems and to meet a number of expected goals. Let’s start with the question of language. As we read it, we’re supposed to believe that, except where expressly stated, all the relevant parties are speaking colloquial Italian. Obviously, apart from the occasional buon giorno to signal the start of a morning conversation, the vocabulary and syntax are that of contemporary American. Since this is a book aimed at native English speakers, the book cannot be written in a foreign language. However, I do sometimes wonder whether more of an effort might be made to reflect some of the “local” rhythms of speech.

Then there’s the question of culture. Italy is not just about the language, it’s also about the social dynamics. People born and bred in different parts of Italy have quite different attitudes when it comes to how they react in different situations. So, for example, the relationship between the sexes, the reaction to people visiting from different parts of Italy, or dealing with foreigners, will vary quite significantly depending on where you are. Because this is also difficult to show, this author tends to define the local culture in terms of its food and wines. There are several quite detailed descriptions of the meals the characters eat and the alcohol they drink. Hence, this description of an Italian resort town is efficient. It does enough through the odd word or short phrase in Italian to remind people where they are supposed to be, and the culinary arts are firmly Italian. As to the rest, apart from a description of the cemetery and one rather nice story about why relationships can change, this could be Jackson Hole Mountain Resort or Squaw Valley.

David P Wagner

David P Wagner

In fact, the setting is the Dolomites which is used to “welcoming” holidaymakers who come to ski during the season, so this particular group of people should be sufficiently open to maximise the amount of euros they can absorb during the visiting season. Hotels, restaurants, cafes and all the usual run of artisanal tourist-oriented shops are lined up ready to supply what their visitors expect to find at a price that’s not a deterrent. This shapes the local politics with the two candidates for mayor being a woodcarver and a baker, both determined to keep their town popular with skiers.

The death of an American is therefore potentially bad for business, and the current mayor is determined the whole matter must be investigated and forgotten as quickly and quietly as possible. An experienced detective arrives from the nearest city and needs a translator to be able to interview the sister who reported him missing. Our hero is the ideal candidate because his uncle is a senior police officer in Rome and has used his influence to have his nephew accepted as an informal consultant. This pitches our hero in the forefront of the investigation and it’s interesting to watch how both the experienced officer and translator arrive at the same answer at the end, but by travelling slightly different routes. In practical terms, the mystery element is high quality. We have a limited pool of suspects which fairly quickly comes down to a choice between two. There’s a minor twist towards the end. The mechanics of the murder and the aftermath are well worked out. The result is satisfyingly logical. I was also reminded of an early episode in the Inspector Morse television series in which our detective was engaging in some gossip at a college function and it was only at the end that he realised how he had been misled. This uses the same device to steer us in completely the wrong direction until evidence to the contrary emerges at the end. Put all this together and you have a book that very efficiently places us in Italy and expertly gives us armchair detectives a rather pleasing puzzle to chew on. Although the thriller elements are somewhat unsatisfying, Death in the Dolomites shows an author developing the craft and delivering a highly satisfying mystery read.

For a review of the first in the series, see Cold Tuscan Stone.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini

January 28, 2014 5 comments

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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.

Roberto Costantini

Roberto Costantini

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.

Cold Tuscan Stone by David P Wagner

November 18, 2013 1 comment

Cold-Tuscan-Stone-A-Rick-Montoya-Italian-Mystery-Ri-269025-16ea57b3f6aa3ff97e10

It’s in the nature of storytelling that every action should have a setting. Indeed, the where and when are essential building blocks to offering a credible context for the action and adding essential colour to the atmosphere. A steampunk story would be located in a Victorian version of London in the 1880s or 90s, a space opera would be set on a massive vessel, bristling with weapons of unimaginable power, the farmhouse might be on a blasted heath as lightning crackles around the night sky, and so on. Indeed, many authors trade on the exotic when it comes to locating the action. That way, even if the readers are finding the plot a little heavy going, they can at least be soaking up the detail of the culture (particularly the food) in colonial Tangier of the 1930s as an Islamically pious place infested by infidels, or in remote Tibet where people divide their time between tent and temple, or as in Cold Tuscan Stone by David P Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) where cosmopolitan northern Italians may be looting their history for illegal antiquities to export while eating robustly elegant food and sipping delicately flavoured wines.

Indeed, there’s a steady trade in mystery, adventure, thriller and romantic fiction that lets us wander round places we’ve heard of but never had the chance of visiting. It’s so much more convenient to open a book than get on an aeroplane or ship to journey off to sun and sand in some distant holiday location. And with an author at our side who’s positively bursting at the seams with interesting factoids about how these people live their lives, what social and political preoccupations they have, what style of clothing they affect, what types of food they eat, and so on, it’s all one long learning opportunity — sometimes with the chance to glean a few phrases of foreign languages should we ever encounter a visitor from Acapulco or Zanzibar (Mexican spanish and kiswahili respectively).

Anyway, this time we’re off to a slightly wintery Volterra in Tuscany with Rick Montoya, an American who makes his living as a translator and interpreter. He has the misfortune to have been to university with an Italian who now works for the Italian Art Squad, and his uncle is a rather famous police officer. It seems this makes him a suitable candidate to be recruited as an unofficial undercover agent. There are original Etruscan urns being spirited out of Italy. This pillaging of Roman history must be stopped. So our hero is sent into the suspected hotbed of export activity to shake the trees and beat the grass to see what emerges into the light. Being old and cantankerous, I don’t find this plot premise even remotely credible. A man with no training or previous background in police work would not be asked to walk into a potentially dangerous situation without detailed briefing or training in the use of “spycraft” or self-defensive techniques. He’s simply given a list of people to interview, the name of the local police chief with whom he’s to liaise, a credit card to cover his expenses, and off he goes. It’s simply extraordinary that he should be told to walk into the local police station as if no-one local would notice, or walk about the town with a mobile clamped to his ear, talking with a national policing agency as if no-one could overhear what was being said. He’s not even advised to conceal the list of people to interview or hide their background files. It’s as if the powers-that-be want him to stand out like an amateur so people will either ignore him or try to kill him, i.e. he could be the tethered goat to attract the tiger.

David P Wagner

David P Wagner

As is often the case, the same day he arrives, he talks with a man who works for one of the suspects. Minutes later, this man is killed. You can’t get a bigger contrivance than that. You would think the powers-that-be would be in full panic mode and call their amateur out of the firing line at the earliest opportunity. But, no, he’s allowed to soldier on, touring round, talking to everyone who will listen and pretending to be a buyer for looted antiquities. Yet, miraculously, someone does contact him and, as Sherlock would say, the game’s afoot. I would go so far as to say the plot is absurd. It’s clearly written by someone who has no real understanding of what it takes to be both original and credible. No professional criminal is going to make illegal deals with a man who walks in off the street without some form of authenticated introduction. Just handing over a business card would not impress anyone. Having no knowledge of Etruscan antiquities is going to raise red flags. How can someone so obviously ignorant be in the market for artifacts, fake or original? He’s not in a position to make any kind of informed judgement about what he’s shown. No-one even halfway competent would begin to trust him. Yet we’re asked to watch him talk to people. We also have moments of insight into the activities of the local police. After a while, they converge, shots are fired, there are arrests (sadly, there are no explosions so it’s not a thriller). And everyone who was on the side of the angels walks away wiser from the experience. Queue suitable music for closing credits and prepare yourself for the inevitable sequel as the uncle who’s an established police officer is obviously lining him up for another exciting adventure.

The descriptions of Rome and Volterra ring true, the menus reflect an informed palate, and there’s enough to convince us that this author knows Italy. But as to the rest of the book. . . Cold Tuscan Stone is an almost complete failure no matter whether you try to label it as mystery, thriller or adventure.

For a review of the sequel, see Death in the Dolomites.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Murder in Tuscany by Christobel Kent

The question when you have just finished a detective novel is what makes such a book good or better. It cannot just be the quality of the writing. Prose is just words and has no life until it’s used in service of a reasonable plot. We then get into genres. To distinguish a thriller from detective fiction, we would have to say there’s no need for the author to supply explosions and car chases when a detective is in charge. But a thriller cannot be considered a success unless a team of ex-Navy Seals or SAS-type commandos abseils from a helicopter in the face of a drug gang armed to the teeth with surface-to-air missiles and AK47s. This is not say there cannot be helicopters in detective fiction or a mystery to resolve in a thriller. But, to distinguish our genre stereotypes, we have to measure the level of violence and count the number of little grey cells employed.

A Murder in Tuscany by Christobel Kent (Minotaur, 2011) (published as A Fine and Private Place in the UK) is the second mystery to feature Sandro Cellini, the first being The Drowning River (or A Time of Mourning in the UK). There’s another called The Dead Season and four other standalone novels, so this is an author with a growing track record. Our hero is a disgraced ex-police officer who’s struggling to earn a living as a private investigator in Florence, Italy. He drives a beat-up car. The woman he asks for help putters around on one of those nice little scooters you tend to see weaving in and out of traffic in European cities. From this, you will understand we are firmly in the land of the little grey cells. If a villain was making a run for it, we know our hero would use his cell phone to call the police who would ignore the call.

Christobel Kent at rest

At the start, our hero has picked up a fairly trivial job following a teenage girl. Her father is convinced she’s fallen in with a bad crowd and wants to know the worst. Fortunately, Cellini is rescued from continuing embarrassment by being called back into a case he dealt with shortly after leaving the police. He did a background check on a woman who has now died in a car accident. Except, perhaps, this is not quite a straightforward accident. In this, Christobel Kent is playing the same game as in The Drowning River where a widow is convinced her husband would never commit suicide. So here we have a car off the road. There’s absolutely no evidence the brakes or suspension were tampered with. It seems clear a woman, notorious for driving too fast, hit a patch of ice at night and crashed into a shallow ravine with a small river at the bottom. She managed to crawl out of the car, but the cold of winter then completed the process of inflicting death.

Except there was an e-mail sent that could be considered a kind of threat. There are also straws in the wind suggesting there’s something not quite right about this death. So Cellini drives slowly to the Castle Orfeo where a small group of artists is enjoying a sabbatical from the world, courtesy of an Arts Trust. The dead lady was the public face of this no doubt worthwhile enterprise. It also seems she was not the most popular person in the Castle, having offended most of the staff and savaged many of the artists in her supposedly anonymous review blog. This recreates the Golden Age of Detection situation of a small number of people in a relatively isolated community, any one of whom could have committed a crime, assuming this death to have been a crime.

Christobel Kent has a slow, methodical approach to writing, creating a slightly dense style full of local colour and detail. There’s a real sense of Italy in the bones of this book, but the main strength lies in the primary characters, all of whom emerge in full 3D and with absolute credibility. Cellini’s marriage is going through a difficult patch. His wife has been treated for cancer. While enduring chemotherapy, she met many younger women who died. The fact she is older but has survived, unsettles her. Sandro is uncertain how to relate to her at this difficult time and wonders whether he should have listened to her advice and found a paying job. Although he’s good at being a detective, it’s difficult to earn enough to cover costs. Then there’s Giuli Sarto who seems to be drifting into a part-time position helping Cellini even though she knows there’s no money to pay her. Over the course of the book, the three exchange ideas and independently decide who must have done it.

Except the route Cellini takes is like following a trail of breadcrumbs. Just over halfway through the investigation at the Castle, it becomes obvious why the deceased left in her car at that time of night. This means we have to look for the precise mechanism to trigger the departure. In every sense, this is a delight as our dogged detective tracks down the evidence which, for entirely legitimate reasons, points to each of the suspects in turn. This is a superior plot, presenting an entirely satisfying solution to an interesting puzzle. Although Christobel Kent’s writing style demands you take your time to savour the detail, A Murder in Tuscany more than repays the effort with a top-class murder mystery to solve. More importantly, when you look back, you can see how fairly all the relevant information is seeded throughout the text. This makes A Murder in Tuscany a must-read for anyone who enjoys quality detective fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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