By Jonathan Woods
At last, Europa Editions has published the final novella in Carlo Lucarelli’s superb historical crime trilogy starring Commissario De Luca. These three linked tales [Carte Blanche, The Damned Season, Via delle Oche] are a great read, rich in atmosphere, sense of place, history and character. As an added bonus each book includes in its cast of characters a strong-willed sexy woman with whom De Luca fornicates heroically and without sentimentality. After the first encounter (pgs 52-53 of Carte Blanche), in which a beautiful and busty fortuneteller with wavy red hair fucks De Luca’s brains out during an air raid, I knew I was hooked.
Carte Blanche, the first book of the trilogy, opens in 1945 as the fascist regime in Italy, propped up by the German army, nevertheless teeters on the verge of final collapse. Italian society is imploding. When a partisan bomb explodes in the midst of a funeral procession, Commissario De Luca, recently transferred from the Political Police back to regular crime fighting duties, dives to the pavement and eats dust. A soldier grabs him by the lapels and shouts: “They’ll pay for this!…Retaliation! Carte blanche!”
Aficionados of noir fiction will be immediately at home with De Luca’s jaded and cynical response:
“Carte blanche, right,” said De Luca, freeing himself from the hysterical grip that was stripping him of his clothes. “Sure, sure.”
He moved away quickly, without turning back, sighing through lips that tasted of dust.
Uninjured, De Luca continues on his way to the scene of the murder of Rehinard Vittorio, an Italian businessman and member of the fascist party – and a drug dealer. In no time De Luca is embroiled up to his eyeballs in a seething stew of fascist intrigue and infighting.
The ghost of Raymond Chandler, especially of The Big Sleep, haunts the pages of Carte Blanche, in its portrayal of a corrupt and decadent society. The slick and womanizing Rehinard is reminiscent of Chandler’s dealer in pornographic books, Arthur Geiger. The spoiled little rich girl character of Sonia Tedesco, daughter of the fascist Count Tedesco, who toys with drugs and sex, brings to mind the shenanigans of Carmen Sternwood.
Notwithstanding these Chandlerian echoes, Lucarelli has not written a pastiche but a highly original crime story steeped in its historic moment. To solve the murder of Rehinard, De Luca teams up with another no bullshit cop named Maresciallo Pugliese. As they circle in on the killer, De Luca learns from his former boss in the fascist Political Police that his name is on the partisan’s death list. Whatever the outcome of the murder investigation, De Luca finds himself running for his life.
The Damned Season, book two of the trilogy, offers a far smaller canvas than Carte Blanche. De Luca, on the run, is commandeered to assist a rural police officer and former partisan named Leonardi in solving a brutal multiple murder. The action is limited to a small mountain village where greed and enmity trump anti-fascist patriotism. Throughout the investigate De Luca masquerades as an engineer passing through on his way to a job in Rome.
A hunted man himself, De Luca suffers stomach pain and insomnia. The rural police officer he is assisting is a bit of a doofus. And the rest of the crew is made up of a variety of country yokels – kind of an Italian version of For Whom the Bell Tolls crossed with The Dukes of Hazard. Luckily there’s one tough and sexy lady named Francesca who works as a barmaid in the local taverna. She’s had her hair shorn as a sign she was suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. But she’s a tough cookie who likes to sleep around notwithstanding that she’s the de facto girlfriend of a local partisan thug named Carnera. When Leonardi tells De Luca in front of her that she “got too keen on the krauts,” she replies:
“I went with the German because he was handsome,” said the girl, tough, pouring wine into De Luca’s glass. “And I go with whoever I like. Don’t worry, you’re not in any danger.”
Leonardi smiled again, then jumped suddenly to his feet, sending his chair backwards across the floor, because she had overfilled his glass, spilling wine on his trousers.
In addition to De Luca’s deeply imagined presence, it is Francesca (nicknamed la Tedeschina: the ‘little German’) who saves this episode of the De Luca files from becoming a run-of-the-mill crime investigation. When De Luca collapses from strangled nerves, lack of sleep and cheap vino tinto in the country tavern where la Tedeschina bartends, she drags him upstairs and puts him to bed. Just before she relents and sleeps with him (pgs. 65-66 of The Damned Season), Francesca tells De Luca:
“It don’t look to me like you’re up to certain things,” she said, cruelly.
“And if Carnera finds out he’ll kill you.”
“Enough of this Carnera.” [says De Luca]
Volume Three, Via delle Oche, returns De Luca to civilization and the complexities of Italian post-war politics of 1948. He’s back in his native Bologna working as a vice cop. Via delle Oche is the street of legal cathouses in Bologna. The handyman for one of these poontang palaces is found murdered. Elections are looming. De Luca, assisted once again by the ebullient Maresciallo Pugliese, is under pressure to drop the investigation. But he won’t let it go.
Not De Luca. Not this cops’ cop. De Luca lives for the chase, the telling clue, the connection between the disparate and seemingly unrelated detritus of a crime scene that ultimately reveals the murderer or the enemy of the state. He just wants to do his job, whether working for the fascist Political Police or as a regular police detective; or later for a rural partisan cop; or finally as a vice cop in post-war Bologna – a Communist hotbed a-broil with Machiavellian politics.
Put there is no escaping the politics of this turbulent historic period between war and peace. No wonder De Luca suffers form an eating disorder, has trouble sleeping and lives under a gray cloud of ennui. De Luca is a damn good investigator but he lacks a moral center. It is this character defect that allowed him to work for the fascist Political Police. But just doing his job well isn’t enough when the politics of good and evil are involved. De Luca’s past haunts him like a Dickensian specter.
The De Luca trilogy is well worth your time both for its wonderful characters and its lucid recreation of a turbulent era of Italian history. The trilogy is ably translated by Michael Reynolds and is nicely packaged with a series of linked cover illustrations by Emanuele Ragnisco.
Europa Editions, 2006
The Damned Season
Europa Editions, 2007
Via delle Oche
Europa Editions, 2008
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