The first line of Dashiell Hammett's 1929 hard-boiled masterpiece Red Harvest refers to a fictional town as "Poisonville," the moniker used by residents to acknowledge its endemic corruption. The Poisonville of Italian novelist Massimo Carlotto's latest crime allegory not only shares his predecessor's use of metaphoric venom but also reflects a literal environmental toxicity brought on by greed, lawlessness, and power politics. This unnamed town is in the heavily industrial northeast of Italy, Carlotto's birthplace and the country's richest sector. The author knows firsthand how the shift of political power in recent years away from both elected officials and the influence of the church to private businesses owned predominately by a few wealthy families has resulted in the wholesale upheaval of social, economic, and environmental stability. A short preface explains succinctly what this looks like in real terms on a given day. What is only implied is how civility has now been replaced by malevolence as a means of consolidating power. In that sense, this is as much a political novel as it is a murder mystery.
First-person narrator Francesco Visentin is a young attorney, the son of the most prominent lawyer in town and a scion to one of the area's richest families. When Francesco's fiancée is murdered, the search for her killer unveils layer upon layer of foul play, corruption, international organized crime, unscrupulous eco-terrorism, and a fair share of dark family secrets. The murder itself is not all that hard to solve; it's the unraveling of this political malfeasance and the uncovering of individuals and institutions that hide behind the cloak of respectability that provide the intrigue. The only character that really stands out is the Contessa Selvaggia Calchi Renier, a vain, libidinous, controlling matriarch who would sell her only child down the river in her quest for power. The book certainly parallels the American pulp/noir tradition with Carlotto being among the leaders of Europe's vibrant school of Mediterranean noir and, indeed, Europa Editions has specifically cited this title under its "World Noir" aegis.
While the narrative moves along at a swift pace, it lacks the brilliance, finesse, and razor's edge of the genre's best writers. Perhaps some of the local pizzazz is lost in translation. Nonetheless, hard-boiled it isn't.
By Jay Trachtenberg