#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE COLD SUMMER by Gianrico Carofiglio

In his last novel (A Fine Line, see my review of May 2016), we left Carofiglio’s lawyer-hero Guido Guerrieri musing ruefully and bitterly on the ethics of the legal profession, as he strove to defend a senior judge accused of taking backhanders from the Mafia. In The Cold Summer, we meet a new protagonist and are taken back to 1992 – which really was a very cold summer in Puglia – for a story based on real events, at that moment in time when Italy was in turmoil after the brutal murders of the anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in Sicily; and when the local mafia in Bari were involved in equally brutal gang wars. 

This novel is a step change for Carofiglio, because his new hero, Pietro Fenoglio, is not a lawyer, but a marshal in the Carabinieri (roughly equivalent to a police chief inspector). Fenoglio has two problems: the gang wars and his wife, Helena, who has walked out on him. The latter crisis continually distracts him as he tries to deal with the former. She has walked out largely because of his inability to have children, and this has left Fenoglio in a professional as well as a personal limbo, as he faces the most difficult phase of his career:

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

There is, therefore, a fine irony in the main event of the story: the abduction of the only son of the top Bari mafia ‘don’ by suspected rivals in his own clan. He is paranoid, with, as Fenoglio reflects, ‘delusions of grandeur’. Into this fragile and explosive situation of a clan at war with itself as well as several others, step a clairvoyant, an orthopaedic nurse, and a mobster who turns ‘queen’s evidence’ and is represented by a lawyer (with the wonderful name ‘Formica’ – ant!), who’s never defended a criminal before. It’s a heady mix, and Carofiglio draws the criss-cross of threads together with his usual masterful dexterity. Amid it all, he displays his genius: writing a thrilling page-turner, while allowing his characters to indulge in a series of philosophical and psychological discussions, which are so fascinating and insightful that they never hold up the pace of the narrative. Thus Fenoglio quotes Italo Calvino on why police transcripts always use inflated language: for example, bottles of wine become ‘oenological products’.

‘Calvino calls [it] semantic terror … transcripts should avoid words with common meanings … it’s an attempt to keep a distance from the concreteness of the real world. Anti-language … a language far from meaning and far from life.’

It’s hard to imagine Dalziel, or even Morse, holding forth like this; the Carabinieri are clearly in a class all their own! 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 story onwards and to give it an intellectual thrust that is the basis of all fine literature – as fine in Howard Curtis’s translation as it is in the original Italian.

Fenoglio doesn’t go crazy – but he does admit that the crime is solved through an ‘accumulation of coincidences’.And coincidence, as Arthur Koestler pointed out, is as true to life as you can get.

Reviewed by Max Easterman


Written by Gianrico Carofiglio

Translated by Howard Curtis 

Published by Bitter Lemon Press (2018)

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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Category: ReviewsFebruary 2019


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