Monday, November 14, 2011
Death and the Olive Grove, by Marco Vichi
I haven't read the first of Marco Vichi's Inspector Bordelli novels, Death in August, and beginning with the second book in a series is frequently not a good idea, I realize. There have been frequent references to Agatha Christie in the p.r. and reviews of the Bordelli books, but at least in the second book, Death and the Olive Grove, any reference to Christie could only be useful to mark Vichi's novel as "cozy" rather than "noir", though perhaps neither sobriquet actually applies. The novels are set in Florence, not quite a big city but certainly larger than a country village, and most of the crime novels set in Florence do have a lighter tone than other Italian and Italian-set mystery fiction, and the setting is mid-20th-century rather than more contemporary times.
Death and the Olive Grove doesn't feature much mystery-solving, and much of the narrative is about Bordelli's personal life and in particular his World War II experiences (according to the review, there's a lot of World War II in Death in August as well). Bordelli is an interesting character, and lively enough to be around—though I personally got a bit tired of the constant reference to the War, rather like being stuck at a dinner table next to someone who can't talk about anything other than his war experiences.
Death and the Olive Grove is really not a police procedural either: Bordelli doesn't really figure out what's going on, he stumbles on facts or is presented them on a silver platter by one or another of the numerous (and somehow quaint) underworld figures that he has cultivated, and whose crimes Bordelli is inclined to overlook.
The case begins with a corpse (reported to the Inspector by a dwarf who is one of those informants) that has vanished by the time Bordellii gets to the scene (the olive grove of the title). That's an interesting beginning, along with the hazards that Bordelli and his temporary sidekick encounter in the grove, but the book is really about a series of child murders. Bordelli and his partner, a Sardinian (whose father Bordelli knew in, wait for it, the War) pursue leads and lock onto a prime suspect, but that suspect is under surveillance during the later murders, thus provided with an ironclad alibi.
So there's plenty of mystery, as well as mayhem, but the pace is very leisurely, frequently interrupted by Bordelli's reminiscences, depictions of his own and his partner's love lives, and the cooking of various of Bordelli's acquaintances among the restaurateurs and criminals of Florence. There's a curious parallel in Bordelli's private life with the plot of Temporary Perfections, the most recent Guido Guerrieri novel by Gianrico Carofiglio: Both Bordelli and Guerrieri have a friendship with a former prostitute of their own age, and a sexual relationship with a much younger woman (in Bordelli's case, 30 years younger, a woman involved in Nazi hunting, which becomes a substantial element of the plot). Some reviewers found Guerrieri's behavior to be problematic, to the point of putting them off Carofiglio's books, and I'd be curious to know how readers react to Bordelli's behavior.
I'd be interested to read more of Vichi's books, but his depiction of the criminal class as a misunderstood economic minority is a bit quaint, given what Italian crime already was at the time the novels are set. To be fair, though, some of Magdalen Nabb's excellent crime fiction set in Florence has a similar pattern. And Bordelli's war experiences neatly sidestep the Fascist era of Italy's participation in the war, casting Bordelli as an irregular fighting the Nazis, rather than a soldier fighing for Mussolini. The Florence of Bordelli's day is evocatively described, and I'd prefer to hear more about that setting and less about Bordelli's War.