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Italy’s Scott Turow

Italy’s Scott Turow

Less sentimental than “Inspector Montalbano”, but just as flavoursome, the legal thrillers of Gianrico Carofiglio – a former gang-busting lawyer – have sold more than five million copies

Less sentimental than “Inspector Montalbano”, but just as flavoursome, the legal thrillers of Gianrico Carofiglio – a former gang-busting lawyer – have sold more than five million copies

Boyd Tonkin | May 5th 2016

In his life before literature, Gianrico Carofiglio faced threats more serious than a razor-edged review. From John Mortimer to Scott Turow, quite a few courtroom stars have also shone in crime fiction. Hardly any can have worked closer to the cutting-edge of organised thuggery than Carofiglio – author of a series of thrillers featuring the defence lawyer Guido Guerrieri – who used to serve as an anti-gang prosecutor in Bari, where the books are set. In that part of Italy, on the Adriatic coast, the mafia goes by the charming name of the Union of the Holy Crown. 

Carofiglio’s gang-busting prowess eventually took him to Rome, first as an adviser on organised crime to the Italian senate and then (from 2008) as a senator himself. For a while, he still needed a bodyguard. His enemies, you sense, would not have been satisifed by posting a one-star review on Amazon.

Given this scarily authentic back-story, readers can expect rather different fare from the genial, even sentimental, adventures of Inspector Montalbano across the straits in Sicily. Carofiglio, whose books have sold more than five million copies, delivers a grittier, tougher brand of case than Montalbano’s begetter Andrea Camilleri. Guerrieri also has a tendency to plunge into bouts of introspection about the meaning of law and justice, guilt and innocence, at just those moments when the Sicilian sleuth would start to think about his dinner.

Not that Carofiglio’s protagonist counts as a bloodless ascetic. Divorced, and now approaching fifty, he boxes, drinks, dates and – inevitably – eats well. Early in his fifth and latest outing in English translation, “A Fine Line”, Guerrieri celebrates the end of a successful suit by preparing “a dressing of very spicy chilli pepper, black olives, anchovies and fried breadcrumbs” and tossing it with “two-hundred grams of spaghetti from the Abruzzi”. Although it’s not quite a gastronomic playground on the Montalbano model, you might still plan your suppers from this series.

Gang crime aside, Guerrieri’s role as a defence lawyer leads him down every dark alley of the Adriatic port. “Involuntary Witness”, the first of Howard Curtis’s robust and flavoursome translations, explored ingrained racism and the precarious plight of immigrants from Africa. In “A Walk in the Dark”, Guerrieri exposed violence against women and the code of omerta that renders it invisible in the grandest families, just as much as among slumland mafiosi. Now, in “A Fine Line”, he tangles with judicial corruption and its toxic seepage not only through a single court but through the rule of law itself.

Pierluigi Larocca, a fellow-student of Guerrieri’s who has risen to become a senior appeal judge in Bari is a dry, prickly but solid pillar of society. Then, out of the blue, gangsters down the road in Lecce start accusing him of taking bribes: 50,000 euros to quash a case. Larocca hires Guerrieri, who believes that the hoodlums want to save their own skin by shifting the blame. When, however, Guerrieri calls in extra help from the intrepid private eye Annapaola Doria – a fearless bisexual biker with more than a touch of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander – the story grows as murky and risky as the inner-city “Cep” neighbourhood where she lives with her Maine Coon cat and Tom Waits CDs.

Guerrieri has just suffered a cancer scare, even if his diet hints more at acute cardiac risk. Mid-life ruminations over time wasted, errors committed and roads not taken punctuate a case that also makes him – and us – tread the fine, blurred lines that divide right and wrong, truth and lies. The lawyer has heard Judge Larocca deliver a wise and subtle lecture on the law’s quest for a safe space where “rules, guarantees and rights” can flourish. Could this paragon of moral jurisprudence really have betrayed himself and his ideals? And if he has, what remains of his counsel’s cherished self-image as an upright man who defends the weak?

Carofiglio seasons his plot with enough philosophical spice to satisfy readers who want more from crime than the usual procedural rollercoaster. He also stays alert to the law’s deviations from reality – not least in its jargon, that “foreign language” stuffed with “mysterious and ridiculous formulas”. In contrast, his own prose neatly switches between twist-packed plot-development, well-salted scenic (or culinary) interludes and clear-headed reflections on the fuzzy borderlands between law and justice. In his lecture, the judge had defined a middle way between the formalistic “rules of procedure” and a noble but fragile “romantic idea of justice”. In his bruised and wary fashion, Avvocato Guerrieri seeks exactly that. So, as the jailed mobsters of Bari can testify, did his creator.

A Fine Line by Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99)

3 Readers' comments

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Hounddogman - September 28th 2016

There's an error here: howard Curtis did not do the translation for Involuntary Witness it was Patrick Creagh. Carofiglio's publisher made a good decision in changing translator: the first book is full of incomprehensible errors of the Google Translate kind e.g. repeated references to 'American coffees' when what is meant is Americanos. I agree with Califprof that Carofiglio may well be too Italian for those in love with what Aurelio Zen defined as 'Italia Lite' rather than the real thing, let them stick with Montalbano or Brunetti Carofiglio is much more interesting.

CalifProfessor - May 24th 2016

P.S. By saying "everything Boyd Tonkin says is true," I meant to say "if you like Scott Turow, you'll like Carofiglio." I couldn't put down his last novel. I was trying, for the educated Economist audience, to guess why America prefers tourist Italy to the real thing. And much praise to Bitter Lemon Press for wanting to publish the real thing.

CalifProfessor - May 15th 2016

But since everything Boyd Tonkin says is true, why isn't Carofiglio selling in America like Scott Turow? Why has an author who has sold 5 million copies abroad being published in English by "Bitter Lemon Press?" A long review in the 2007 San Francisco Humanities Review (from San Francisco State University) compared GC with SFSU's Frances Mayes, whose Under the Tuscan Sun stayed on the NYT bestseller list for a year, and has generated a Hollywood movie and a cookbook. Conclusion: GC is too Italian to write well about Italy for Americans. The hero, in dark moments, recites Leonard Cohen to himself, or Green Day. The love interest (in Reasonable Doubts) isn't Sophia Loren in a torn dress, but a glamorous Japanese woman, Natsu Kawabata, who works as a sushi chef "in a fashionable sushi spot in Bari." The reviewer protested, "The first rock concert I took my son to was a Green Day concert. I have to go all the way to Italy to listen to Green Day?.... This is not tourist Italy, and that after all is what the mass market would be looking for; and me too. Taking an armchair trip to Italy to watch them eating sushi and listening to Leonard Cohen wasn’t what I had in mind when I sat down on the couch with the book." The review also considers the command of Italian pop cultural history the author requires (the hero, as a kid, gets beaten up for wearing an "anorak?" A what? Why?) A fascinating test case in how literature travels; or doesn't.