Thursday, July 10, 2008
Italian noir by Michele Giuttari
I don't know of another crime series written by as senior a detective as Michele Guittari, former head of the "squadra mobile" in Florence. His novels are based in part on his experience as a detective, and give insights into investigative procedure, but he also has a tendency to gravitate toward big conspiracies and standard plot devices. I have to mention as well that he evidently persecuted a pair of journalists with an alternate view of a real case that is part of his plot in his first novel, A Florentine Death, jailing one and kicking the other out of the country for the crime of contradicting the cop's theory of the Monster of Florence case in both his police work and his own book on the case. In A Florentine Death, Giuttari offers a serial killer (an unavoidable cliche, it seems, in crime fiction) as well as an overarching conspiracy that's not (quite) as grandiose as that of the Da Vinci Code. In the newly translated A Death in Tuscany, the crime is more ordinary, the murder of a young girl who is possibly an illegal immigrant, and the conspiracies that are offered are less grand (one involving the Mafia, naturally, and the other a group of Freemasons. The latter stretches credulity a bit (though the Masons have frequently put in fictional appearances of a conspiratorial sort) and also reaching for a couple of increasingly common cliches of crime fiction, the trafficking of women and girls and the circle of paedophiles. Some of these prove to be more important to the plot than others. The chief of the novel's squadra mobile, also named Michele and also stationed in Florence, begins the investigation into the girl's death in spite of the appearance of an accidental overdose, but as that story progresses he gets sidetracked into a second case involving the disappearance of an old friend, Massimo (also a character in the earlier novel). Along the way, he runs afoul of Masonic webs of influence, jealousy between the police and the Carabinieri (who have jurisdiction over the case of the missing friend, whom they suspect as a conspirator in another murder), and various cops and prosecutors whose toes he has trodden upon. The group of detectives in the squad, who were mostly just sketched in in the earlier novel, are more fully shown in this one, partly because the second plot line keeps Michele busy enough that his crew takes over the original murder case. And the setting is glorious: not only Florence but the marble quarrying region from Pietrasanta to Carrara and the beaches along the nearby coast. Giuttari has a tendency to repeat certain phrases (such as one to the effect that there are no coincidences) and to include a lot of busywork on the detectives' part (not necessarily a flaw, if you're into the procedural side of things). The ego of his hero (and presumably the hero is a stand-in for the author) is immense, but at least he's not on-stage quite as much in A Death in Tuscany, giving the reader and the other characters a bit of breathing room. After a lot of nose-to-the grindstone investigating, conspiracy theorizing, and worrying about the fate of the missing friend, A Death in Tuscany moves to an ending with two separate but related "exciting conclusions" that work well as a kind of double coda to the police work along the way. A Death in Tuscany is part thriller, part police procedural, and part ego trip. I think I'd be less insistent on the "ego trip" part if it wasn't for the Monster of Florence difficulty, which is highlighted in a new true-crime book by those journalists that Giuttari tried to jail or discredit (The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi). So I'd say that A Death in Tuscany is worth reading for the pleasure, and for the insight into an author with a lot of police experience and with a tragic flaw of his own, in the violence of his insistence that he is right about the Monster case (his theory featuring the same kind of conspiracy that he features in his fiction).