#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews INVOLUNTARY WITNESS, REASONABLE DOUBTS, A FINE LINE, THE COLD SUMMER and THE MEASURE OF TIME by Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio is best known in the UK for his series of six legal thrillers featuring the indomitable defence lawyer Guido Guerrieri. These are more than mere crime stories: Guerrieri’s cases unfold against a background of profound reflection on the human condition and the role of the legal system. It’s reasonable to assume Guerrieri‘s outlook and attitudes reflect Carofiglio’s own concerns about the law – the way it works, the role of judges, juries and the relationship between lawyer and client. The books are set in Puglia, where Carofiglio was an anti-Mafia prosecutor in Bari before turning his hand to writing, which he does supremely well: his books are rarely less than literary tours de force, infused with a striking, gritty realism.

In Involuntary Witness, the first book in the series, Guerrieri is on the cusp of the mid-life crisis that gradually subsumes him over the next five: his marriage has collapsed, he has insomnia and panic attacks, and a disastrous one-night stand, and is only ‘rescued’ from this morass by his own decision to defend what seems the undefendable: a Senegalese immigrant accused of murdering a young boy. The case is tainted by racism, and the evidence is considerable but entirely circumstantial. Unlike many fictional lawyers, he does not become a sleuth himself but uses the law and legal process to undermine the circumstantial evidence that could have resulted in a miscarriage of justice.

Reasonable Doubts – the third in the series – finds Guerrieri again faced with a difficult decision: to defend or not to defend in an appeal case. The appellant, it becomes clear, has been set up – but he’s also a former fascist thug and he gave Guerrieri a beating when he was a teenager. He has, though, a beautiful wife (who ends up in bed with Guerrieri) and it’s also clear his original counsel was less concerned with getting his client off than protecting some well-connected person or other. Once again, Guerrieri eschews becoming a detective and relies on his ability to exploit legal procedure to get his result. But the real meat of the book lies in Guerrieri’s moral doubts and philosophising: knowing he’s doing the right thing but for the wrong reasons. His doubts and reservations about his own life but also, more importantly, about the role of lawyers and the legal system are a leitmotiv of the novels: can the law and its practitioners really determine what is truth?

In A Fine Line (which I reviewed for Riveting Reviews in May 2016) Guerrieri is settling uncomfortably into high middle age, tormented by thoughts about his missed opportunities and whether, in spite of his achievements, it was all worth it. ‘My future’, he reflects, ‘is sunk in the past’. He has also had a medical scare and a period of painful introspection thereafter: ‘The thought that in a short while, not in some remote, abstract future, you’ll cease to exit. The world will cease to exist.’ In hands other than Carofiglio’s such musings could easily have descended into banality. It’s 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 is accused of taking backhanders; he and Guerrieri were students together and only the lawyer’s conviction that the judge is straight as a die convinces him to take the case. But Larocca, it seems, has links to the Mafia and defending him is an error of judgement. 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. 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?’

In The Measure of Time, the final story so far (which I reviewed for Riveting Reviews in April 2021) Guerrieri asks a group of trainee magistrates how it can be that we give jurists the power to decide the freedom and destiny of another man when this implies ‘an element of terrible brutality’. Do they, he wonders, realise that ‘there is not just one answer to human dilemmas. [They] are inevitably ambiguous’. Which of our present-day beliefs, he asks, will be rejected as untenable by future generations: ‘we need to be aware that the ability to find answers and solutions to conflicts is based on our ability to live with uncertainty, with the opaqueness of reality.’ So much then for the solemn pronouncement of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ by an Italian magistrate or indeed a British jury foreperson. For Guerrieri, though, faced with a client who just ‘knows’ her son is not guilty, the dilemma is that he must argue from that point of view, even though he knows there’s an evens chance it’s the wrong one: ‘If we always believed the nearest and dearest, the crime of homicide … would vanish from the statistics.’

Roughly halfway through the Guerrieri series, Carofiglio introduced a new series of books with a new protagonist: Pietro Fenoglio, a marshal of the Bari carabinieri. Moreover, these are very much romans policiers, with a strong investigative thread. The second of these stories, The Cold Summer (reviewed for Riveting Reviews in February 2019), is based on real events that took place in 1992 in what was in fact a very cold summer in Puglia. Fenoglio faces a double challenge: gang wars and his wife, who has walked out on him, leaving him in a professional as well as a personal limbo.

‘They had almost never talked about his investigations, but whenever they had, [she] had always had a few ideas … casual observations. He felt something like a sense of breathlessness at the awareness of his loss.’

Carofiglio draws together the criss-cross of threads of this complex story about the abduction of the only son of a Bari mafia ‘don’ with his usual masterful dexterity. He writes a thrilling page-turner, while allowing his characters to indulge in a series of philosophical and psychological discussions, which are so fascinating, so insightful, that they never hold up the pace of the narrative. Thus Fenoglio quotes Italo Calvino on why police transcripts always use inflated language, in which, for example, bottles of wine become ‘oenological products’. ‘Calvino calls [it] semantic terror … Anti-language … a language far from meaning and far from life.’ And yet, there are more down-to-earth home truths as well:

‘ … you’re told about some poor guy being tortured, beaten to a pulp, killed like a dog and burnt … [and] all you’re thinking about is the inquiries you’ll have to conduct … [the] evidence you’ll have to find. If you don’t have that functioning system of defences, you’ll just go crazy.’

Such reflections serve only to push the action onwards and to give it an intellectual thrust that is the basis of all fine literature: this is Carofiglio’s genius, of writing fiction against such a strong factual background that it’s hard not believe the narrative is real life and indeed quite impossible not to believe that his protagonists, with all their foibles and weaknesses, fears and convictions, are not real people.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

INVOLUNTARY WITNESS, tr. Patrick Creagh

REASONABLE DOUBTS, tr. Howard Curtis

A FINE LINE, tr. Howard Curtis

THE COLD SUMMER, tr. Howard Curtis

THE MEASURE OF TIME, tr. Howards Curtis

by Gianrico Carofiglio


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Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.


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