Character Study Disguised As Cop Story
Set in the days before the collapse of Mussolini's Italy, Carlo Lucarelli's "Carte Blanche" has an all-too-human hero.
Under the best of circumstances, investigating a murder can be a trying enterprise. But imagine what it would have been like to conduct one in Milan in April 1945, just days before the final collapse of Mussolini's collaborationist regime.
That's Commissario De Luca's assignment, his first upon being transferred from a special branch of the Political Police - where he was Commandante De Luca - to the regular police. Author Carlo Lucarelli explains in a preface to his novel Carte Blanche that at the time Milan had at least 16 different police forces, "from the regular police, the 'Questura,' to the Gestapo, each doing as they pleased and sometimes arresting one another."
Lucarelli also tells of the man who inspired De Luca (whose first name is never given). This was a fellow who spent 40 years as a policeman in Italy, starting in the fascist political police and ending as a member of the Italian Republic's police force. Lucarelli asked him once who he voted for. "What has that got to do with it?" he answered. "I'm a policeman."
So Carte Blanche, while ostensibly - and rather effectively - a police procedural, is really, deep down, a character study.
The murder De Luca is investigating is of a man named Vittorio Rehinard, a shadowy figure with ties to rival fascist factions and to the SS - both Italian and German. Among other things, he seems to have been dealing drugs. Strikingly handsome and quite the ladies' man, he has been stabbed through the heart and castrated. Oh, and he also seems to have had some dealings in the occult.
So De Luca - tormented by insomnia and heartburn - has his work cut out for him, to say the least. Rehinard, obviously, was the sort of guy lots of people might prefer to see dead. One of the women connected to him is the daughter of a powerful count, and when the count proves singularly uncooperative, De Luca figures his bosses will take him off the case. But no, they tell him to proceed with his investigation; they're giving him carte blanche to solve the case. Soon he's being touted in the newspapers as one of the country's top crime investigators, and his bosses are telling him to wrap the case up and arrest the count's daughter.
At the heart of Lucarelli's novel - if not the investigation itself - is De Luca's encounter with Valeria Suvich, a fortune-teller. "I know how to read in the eyes," she tells him.
"Really," De Luca says. "And what do you see in mine?"
She tells him she knows what kind of person he is. "One who hides... the kind that's always thinking about work... always busy, always on the run, never stopping... . You're alone, but that doesn't worry you so long as work keeps you from thinking."
"And what is it that I'm afraid of?" he asks her.
"That they'll kill you."
And so he is, and so they - partisans, presumably - try.
De Luca, in other words, is a man both pursuing and pursued. And that makes him one of the more interesting figures in crime fiction. When Valeria challenges him to "tie me to a chair and burn me with a cigarette, like you did in the old days," De Luca protests vehemently: "I never did that!... It wasn't me who did certain things. I just did my job. I'm a cop, that's all!"
The graceless translation notwithstanding (including, from time to time, sentences that simply do not parse), it is clear from this that De Luca has some idea of what has happened to people he has arrested. And he knows that it wasn't nice. So exactly what kind of a protagonist do we have here? An all too human one, I fear, a congeries of inconsistencies and contradictions, courageous up to a point, but willfully obtuse morally. Also surprisingly sympathetic - because Lucarelli skillfully forces us to view De Luca's twisted world from the policeman's own skewed perspective. It makes for uneasy reading.
By Frank Wilson
Visit Frank Wilson's blog at http://booksinq.blogspot.com/.