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The Nation: In the Lost Realm of the Real

Date: Jul 1 2008

If there's one writer who ratifies [Michael] Dibdin's dark, ironic but oddly nostalgic vision, it is Carlo Lucarelli. Lucarelli, a well-known TV personality in Italy, hosts a late-night show devoted to unsolved mysteries, whose subjects range from the mysterious death of the Italian industrialist Enrico Mattei to the murder of Pier Paulo Pasolini. Lucarelli came to attention in Italy in 1990 with Carte Blanche, the first of a brilliant trilogy of very short novels set in a period stretching from the collapse of Mussolini's Salo Republic, a puppet regime of the Nazis that ruled Northern Italy from 1943 to 1945, to the earlier years of the postwar Italian Republic. They feature Commissario De Luca, a weary detective and former member of Mussolini's political police who, as Carte Blanche begins, has transferred back to the ordinary force just as he realizes that the Salo Republic is about to collapse. Wracked by bad conscience and a lack of sleep, he tries to claw back his professional pride as an ordinary homicide detective. Unfortunately, the first homicide he has to investigate involves a victim with strong connections to the Fascist elite. For a novel of such slender size (a mere 120 pages), Carte Blanche is a richly atmospheric policier that, reeking of the decay and political squalor of the late Mussolini period, recalls Bertolucci's Il Conformista and Hammett's Red Harvest.

The nasty atmospherics continue in The Damned Season, a claustrophobic and nervy thriller set in the month after Italy's liberation from fascism. De Luca is posing as an engineer in the countryside between Bologna and Rome, fearful that he is on a partisan hit list. After inadvertently divulging his identity, he is blackmailed into heading a homicide investigation--one that finds him ensnared in the rivalries of competing partisan factions. The trilogy's final novel, Villa Delle Oche, is set during the days leading up to the contentious first election after the liberation, in April 1948, where De Luca is working for the Bologna vice squad. Still sleepless, he is also guilt-ridden by former associations and has developed a nervous tic of chewing the inside of his cheek while on the trail of a murderer who seems to have dispatched several lowlifes who have Communist sympathies. It is a bitter, ironic novel that closes an era when everything seemed politically possible in Italy, and whose nippy pace is enlivened by the use of hysterical contemporary newspaper headlines and political slogans, including this priceless one: "If the Christian Democrats win all of Italy will be a seminary: No more Charlie Chaplin, Totò, or Rita Hayworth. You'll die of boredom."

There's a slightly demented, baroque quality to Lucarelli's novels reminiscent of Italian horror director Dario Argento. Any writer of Lucarelli's generation cannot approach the crime thriller without wrestling with the achievement of the cinematic master of the Italian giallo. The two other novels of Lucarelli's that have been translated into English, Almost Blue and Day After Day, have a similar staccato-like pulse that bares the imprint of Argento's Deep Red. Their protagonist, a sultry young Southerner, Inspector Grazia Negro, is as finely realized a character as Aurelio Zen, a cop who has the dual burden of hunting serial killers and professional killers and combating her boorish male colleagues. Of the two novels, Almost Blue is the superior, a sublime, sinewy work that is icy, elegant and swathed in darkness. It is dominated by two obsessive narrators: one, a serial killer filled with self-loathing; the other, a blind recluse named Simone who spends insomniac nights listening to the police radio and following the movement of Inspector Negro. Simone can never see Bologna, but his imagined city--woven from the lonely nights listening to police radio--sparkles like a magic lantern. His voice is eerie, elegiac and mostly what makes Almost Blue such a memorable novel. Colors have a different meaning for him. "For me, a pretty girl might have blonde hair, but a truly beautiful girl would be barefoot, brave and have blue hair."

It's as if Negro, De Luca and Zen are neighbors whose homes are haunted by the same ghosts--phantoms that Lucarelli and Dibdin want to bring back to life. It's a lonely and bitter task, especially in light of what Geoff Andrews has called "Italy's hour of darkness": Berlusconi's "third coming" and the radical left's liquidation in Italy's recent elections. "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change," Tancredi tells his uncle in Lampedusa's The Leopard. Dibdin's and Lucarelli's stories about the misteri d'Italia are poignant and distressing confirmations of those dark words.

Read Carl Bromley's article on Italian mysteries (real and otherwise) in its entirety in The Nation