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Shelf Awareness: "A clever, suspenseful crime thriller about the writing of a crime thriller, with twists, turns, reversals and trapdoors."

Date: Mar 5 2009

A 60-plus professor in Naples discovers that his former student Nina has been arrested for armed conspiracy. When he visits her, she urges him to go to her friend's vacated home, find the book The Death of Virgil and copy out the underlined passage on page 46. Forever the idealist, believing his student is fighting injustice, the professor risks being followed, goes to the friend's home and searches the bookshelf. The book is not there.

Then the professor goes into the bedroom and finds the book by the bed.

At that point, the author intrudes, regrets the finding of the book in the bedroom and decides to cancel that part of the story. Suddenly you're no longer in an international crime novel--you find yourself in Pirandello and Calvino country. The author confesses that in reality the student was a boy, that he never went to see him and doesn't really like the story very much anyway.

Domenico Starnone's First Execution starts out like a promising Mediterranean noir but soon becomes a humane, angry little crime thriller about the writing of a crime thriller. Some sequences are done twice. Some expositions are tried in several ways. At one point, you go back to the original outline. And when the violent, bloody murder happens two-thirds of the way through the book, well, the bloodbath is the murder of a squawking, bulging-eyed chicken.

Another former student turns up as the police officer investigating the professor, a student the professor never noticed because he was stupid and ugly. Then the professor receives a threatening call from a man demanding to know the underlined sentence on page 46. When the professor confesses that he couldn't find the book, the guy says ominously. "I'll be there in two hours. Make sure you have what you promised."

There is one suspenseful sequence after another, but sometimes the same sequence more than once, tried two different ways, or deleted after you read it. The author lets us in on his choices and failures. He sets up his surprises like a master puppeteer, and we watch him pulling the strings, never casually, never just clever, always with his urgent humanitarian commitment. The author's exploration of the violence buried inside himself is eloquent and searing.

Within this tight little 163-page marvel, Starnone creates characters you care about, a labyrinth of a plot and plenty of trap doors swinging open under your feet in an exhilarating, heartfelt tour de force.

--Nick DiMartino