“The real problem is, in the age of globalisation, prostitution is an unstoppable phenomenon: human beings worth something on the sex market, especially women and children, are transformed into goods for sale or rent. Exploited until they die…”

This is a crime novel that makes at you feel like you’ve been tied to a rail with an express train coming down the tracks. A simple gangster revenge tale, a spaghetti western of a story, just gets more and more emotionally intense, more and more tightly wound, incrementally more complex until the explosive climax calms the nerves by satisfying the desire for justice. But, and it’s a big but, it reminds you that all is not yet right with the world, that Marco Buratti and his mates, the anti-heroes here are not done yet. The next novel is set up should Carlotto want to go that way. Blues for Outlaw Hearts and Old Whores is a terrific noir crime novel. The very definition of taut, Carlotto is a master of the art of the pared down read, no wasted, superfluous words here, (unlike this review!)

Massimo Carlotto is an important Italian writer, he has a personal history with the law that could be the plot of a crime novel, (see his memoir The Fugitive, 2007). There’s no doubt this informs the exploration of moral dilemmas and the desire for justice that underpins all his fiction, from the complex Poisonville written with Marco Videtta, 2009, to the Alligator series, of which this is the latest. He is known as an exponent of Mediterranean noir, crime writing that recognises the fluid and interconnected relationship between communities, cities and heritage of the Mare Internum, the sea they share, (Marseilles, Padua, the north African coast). The most famous exponent is Jean Claude Izzo, a man of the Mediterranean as much as he was French. the writing of Izzo and Carlotto has themes and common characteristics that differentiate is from the distinctly French or Italian fiction. Perhaps for you genre and sub-genre don’t really matter, after all, Carlotto is simply a master crime writer full stop and this novel is top notch.

Blues for Outlaw Hearts and Old Whores appears to be a simple tale of gangsters duelling that becomes more involving, and morally complex, a deeply compassionate tale. This novel gets the reader caught up in the lives of its protagonists, genuinely caring about their fate. Carlotto confront issues of right and wrong and the many shades of grey that make life so rich and perplexing. One of the themes of this novel is the mindless, brutal, violence perpetrated by men on women, it’s passionate and compelling storytelling. In keeping with the theme, here’s a little story of the blues that illustrates the emotional core this novel exudes.

There’s a version of My Man Don’t Love Me by Billie Holiday, (Sounds of Jazz, 1957), that carries every punch, every rape, every beating, every betrayal and brutal moment from her booze soaked, drug addled life – that’s the blues right there. Some writers get that pain, Carlotto does, it’s here in this novel. Don’t mistake this crime novel simply for a good read, an entertainment, it’s so much more than that. This is life at the wrong end of a broken bottle. This is unfair, dirty, mean, and angry – it’s real. This is a world where women suffer, the cops screw you, the politicians screw you, even the church will screw you, let alone the Mafia. In this world the Alligator and his friends Max and Beniamino have rules, a code they live by, that’s what makes them stand out, screw with them and reap the consequences, but play it straight and you got no problems. They’re old school. They inhabit a world of seedy bars and dark streets but the people they meet are always real, often cosmopolitan and exotic, but real. Right now the trio are facing the possibility of ending their lives in jail or in a hole in the ground. They aren’t going to take it lying down.

The Alligator, Marco Buratti, can tell that the informant is an ex-cop, a guy looking to boost his pension, crumpled at the edges, thwarted by life. Marco shows him the photo of the man they are hunting, the ‘affluent gourmand’, about 45, charming to a fault. He prides himself on being able to read people, this guy is telling the truth, he knows where Giorgio Pellegrini is hiding out. Pellegrini is a bad guy, the worst, he’s going down.

Max, the memory, Beniamino Rossini and Marco are friends from Padua have been together a long time, been through a lot, they have each other’s backs. The trio have been in Vienna about a month now hunting Pellegrini, they have their favourite bars, they’ve made friends with the local prostitutes, including trans Katarina who seems to like the old gangster, that flatters the old man but there’s business to be done now that they know where to find Pellegrini. Marco:
“The last time we’d been face to face with Handsome Giorgio was in a basement, Rossini pointing a pistol at him. He bartered for his life in exchange for something more important to us, and we kept our end of the bargain. At least the Old Gangster did. I’d begged him to pull the trigger, to rid humanity of that snake, but my friend didn’t listen. We’d given our word.”
Time to finish Pellegrini. The cottage he’s at belongs to Lotte Schlegel, it doesn’t look like anybody’s home. They search, a wardrobe in the bedroom has a copy of the photograph of Pellegrini that they have been touting around town to find him pinned to it. Pellegrini knew they were coming, he slipped them again. Inside the wardrobe was a dead woman, strangled.

Back in Italy inspector Guilio Campagna, (“he had his own theories about policing and justice.”), has a job for the three amigos, the unholy trinity. A job he knows Marco can’t resist because he believes in truth. Someone else was looking for Pellegrini, in order to get to him they tortured, raped and murdered his wife and girlfriend at La Nena, the restaurant he fled leaving the two women unprotected. The cops want the killers. Of course, Campagna is only a puppet, Doctoressa Angela Marino of the ministry is pulling the strings and she’s prepared to fit the boys up if they don’t do this job. Marco appears to go along with it. Marino assumed everyone has her sense of a/morality:
“You all act tough at first. But when you’re facing life in jail, you’ll turn on anybody.”

This is a game where everyone is trying to screw everyone else, nothing goes to plan, can the trio of crusaders for a better underworld triumph, or will they go down in flames?
There’s a feel of classic noir here:
“I didn’t say anything. I wanted her to turn around and look at me. When she did I gave her one of my resistible looks. She noticed that decided it was of no interest. I should have expected as much.”

There’s a clever switch of narrator that benefits the storytelling here but the bottom line is: Crime writing this good just has to be read.

Paul Burke 5/4*

Blues for Outlaw Hearts and Old Whores by Massimo Carlotto, Translated by Will Schutt
9781787702134 World Noir Paperback February 2020