This is the latest in Gianrico Carofiglio’s series of Italian thrillers featuring his defence lawyer Guido Guerrieri, a man with a penchant for going the extra mile in his determination to defend his clients, which inevitably lands him in all sorts of trouble. But this novel is a step change, as Guerrieri settles uncomfortably into high middle age, thinking about his life, his achievements, missed opportunities and whether it was all worth it. He reflects on how his profession has exchanged courtesy for vulgarity, even brutality, how “my future is sunk in the past”. It’s a painful analysis for him, a period of introspection provoked by a medical scare: “…I was suspended over a void… The thought that in a short while, not in some remote, abstract future, you’ll cease to exist. The world will cease to exist”. This is a finely drawn exploration of the human condition, one that in lesser hands than Carofiglio’s could easily have descended into banality.
The medical scare is a false alarm, but one that brings Guerrieri up short with this mid-life reality check; and into this maelstrom of emotion steps the figure of Judge Pierluigi Larocca, head of the Appeal Court… who, as Guerrieri surmises, turns out to be ”…a flashing red sign saying Danger Ahead.”
Larocca and Guerrieri attended the same school and university; but while Guerrieri “hung out with all sorts of people”, Larocca pursued a golden career, scoring top marks in whatever he tackled, and is now set to become the youngest president of the Court of Bari… except he stands accused of corruption, taking back-handers, and he wants Guerrieri to take on his defence. He only reluctantly agrees because he believes Larocca is so straight, so untouchable, that his initial reaction was mistaken – defending someone he knows as a friend, if a distant one, would go against all his instincts; his ultimate conviction that Larocca is innocent persuades him.
And so he embarks on an investigation into his client, with the help of a bisexual private detective Annapaola Doria, an almost-Lisbeth Salander-type figure, who rides a motorbike and carries a baseball bat for those occasions when nothing else will do. Together, their discoveries about Larocca’s alleged links to the Mafia bring back all Guerrieri’s fears, that taking on this case was an error of judgment, but one he is now stuck with. Carofiglio deftly turns his protagonist’s discomfiture into a fascinating, gripping exploration of the relationship between defendant and counsel, of the meaning of ‘justice’ and of the shortcomings of the Italian legal system – except that, as we read, we realise that this is all about legal systems everywhere, morality everywhere, ethics in everyone’s life and work. For Guerrieri, the question becomes, should he give up the brief? Would he do that if he discovered a defendant accused of robbery had actually done the deed? No! But then:
“A corrupt judge”, Guerrieri muses as he cycles round his city, Bari, “not his existence but the fact that he’s your client… undermines the system, the structure, the whole theatre where you’ve played your role…”
The law as theatre, a Shakespearian metaphor, and an apt one, but the strutting actors have become for Guerrieri players with a kind of moral anaesthesia.
“You fill yourself with lies to justify your own cowardice… Everybody lies. Anyone who says they don’t is either an idiot or a bigger liar than anyone else. Mental health consists in finding a point of balance between truth and lies… Lying to your fellow man is often ethical and healthy… Lying to yourself, though, is quite another matter.”
The ultimate legal dilemma is distilled in this relationship between Guerrieri and Larocca: “If that man continues to be a judge, how can I continue to be a lawyer.” However it ends, being a lawyer will never be the same again.
By Max Easterman
A FINE LINE
By Gianrico Carofiglio
Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis
Published by Bitter Lemon Press
Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.
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