‘…like an Italian Tom Wolfe set in Milan and Liguria.’ [Walter Iuzzolino]
You may know Walter as the man behind Walter Presents on channel 4, a cornucopia of foreign TV drama. Now Walter Presents is branching out into crime fiction choosing favourite Euro-noir titles for the Pushkin Press. The first novel selected was a French thriller, The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos published in May, both readers and critics gave it a thumbs up. Now comes The Second Life of Inspector Canessa by Italian author Roberto Perrone an altogether darker novel but also proof positive that this collaboration is no gimmick and could be very fruitful. This novel is a cracking read, intriguing and gripping.
I know my way around Italian noir, from the classic Gadda, Scerbanenco and Sciascia to contemporary favourites De Giovanni, Lucarelli, Carlotto, Saviano and de Cataldo. I would happily add Perrone to that list on the back of reading this one novel, I would love to see more from him in English translation in the future. In fact, I knew I was going to enjoy this book from page one, I was comfortable with this novel’s distinctive style and mood, a reader’s instinct that proved to be spot on. Perrone takes us into familiar territory, corrupt cops and officials, vicious killers and gangsters, but at the same time there is an originality in interpretation of events and actions that draws us away from the expected – it’s fresh and original.
Memory of the past – Some things are haunting, they colour everything in life. He remembers the man walking his two young children to school, they are watching him, they strike; why did they decide to act before he dropped the kids off? A colleague opens fire, the man has pushed the little girl away but the boy clings to his father’s hand, the bullet riddled the man’s body, miraculously the boy isn’t hit. Since then he has struggled to understand that moment, what made the boy hang on so tightly? Finally, he feels after thirty years that he understands, he is no longer troubled by the memory, he can make the call.
Now – It’s 4.30 in the morning, Napoleone Canessa sits in the park smoking, he can’t sleep, he has a meeting in Milan before just 8am, a man he hasn’t seen in many years wants to see him, soon he will leave for the train station. In Milan Judge Federico Astroni is surprised when a woman brushes past him reminding him that he should be watching his back more carefully. Of course, he has bodyguards and no one can park outside his apartment for fear of bombs but the judge has made many enemies. He believes that the nation’s toxic politics need cleaning up but it goes beyond that, over the years he has made his campaign personal and that may come back to bite him. Journalist Carla Travoli is trying to prove herself, sleeping with her boss was a mistake, she wants to be taken seriously. Meanwhile unaware of what is brewing, Annibale Canessa takes his morning swim, he is happy, untroubled by life.
Rocco is a psychopath. His boss, Nando Panattoni, private investigator/fixer, knows it. He wouldn’t let the man stay in the city before a job, the women around him would not be safe. One day his behaviour will compromise an operation but he’s the kind of man needed for a job like this. Panattoni and Rocco are waiting at the Milan train station for the men to arrive for their meeting.
Giannino Salemme is an influential man, a powerful broker and lawyer he has just flown back to Milan from America. He is met by his son at the airport who tells him that the two men are about to meet. They had them monitored, the son was ready for it, the operation has been set in motion, it just needs Salemme’s approval – he gives his permission. They drive home.
Guiseppi Pino Petri will soon be out of prison permanently, for now he is recalled to his cell every night under day release. Petri has arranged a meeting at the city central station. He doesn’t notice he is being watched. He greets Napoleone Canessa with the news that he has something that he will want to hear. They walk away from the station but Napoleone will never get the chance to hear what Petri wants him to know after all these years. He watches as Petri is gunned down, he is standing immobilised, in shock, as he too is shot to death.
1984 – Major Annibale Canessa and Marshall Ivan Repetto are returning from a job in Milan.
It’s an intricate set up, several hares are set running that coalesce beautifully as the novel unfolds. The past haunts the present as long held resentments and secrets come to light, this is about corruption and society’s underbelly but it’s also about family, about the pain of betrayal. The Second Life of Inspector Canessa is deeply insightful of why people compromise their character, why they do the horrible things we love to read about. There’s an intensity of feeling to this novel that makes it an emotional ride as well as an intelligent and thought provoking one.
Does Walter know books like he knows TV? On this evidence emphatically – Yes. Translated by Hamish Goslow.
Walter Presents, Pushkin Press, paperback original, ISBN 9781782276210, 27th August.
Personal read 5*
Group read 4*
The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann
This one will not be for everyone, it’s a novel that makes the reader work at unpeeling its meaning Fromm the text rather than just absorbing it, as is often the case with a more straightforward thriller. However, if you are interested in understanding the symbiotic relationship between the individual and the state under totalitarian rule, a complex subject I know, this novel is insightful. What happens when free thought is sacrificed to a supposed collective will? How long can individuality and how far can self-awareness be suppressed and at what cost?
The book initially appears to have more head than heart but as the story unfolds the emotional impact begins to hit home, especially when we begin to understand the main character Zeiger and his quest. The title is a slightly forbidding one but it makes sense in the context of the story. This is a novel about a Stasi officer who finally has cause to question his role in the apparatus of the state during the Cold War. The East Germany of the communist regime led by Erich Honecker, Zeiger has much to answer for, this is a surveillance society where neighbours spy on each other but he has been a willing henchman. At times this is wickedly funny but it’s also an insightful journey into the paranoia, obsessions and delusions of the totalitarian state. A couple of the liberal writer’s most potent weapons against censorship and state control of cultural output was surrealism and the use of allegory. Hofmann has co-opted the form for her novel. What we get is the deconstruction of a life led in service to false gods. The officer, Bernt Zeiger, lived to work for the regime, how did it come to that? That element of the story exposes the absurdity and cruelty of tyranny and gives the story a disturbingly haunting feel. It’s not as esoteric as I make it sound because at its heart this story is about love and loss and betrayal and it questions whether reflection can lead to redemption. It’s this emotional core set against the unbending, uncomprehending ‘logic’ of the state that grounds the novel in something we can empathise with. We are on familiar territory; a man searching for a missing woman discovers more about himself than he intended, the knowledge of his rotten past can no longer be ignored. The prose is calm and understated and yet piercingly sharp, this is a thought provoking survey of the psychopathy of East Germany but, not to be complacent, what we see could apply anywhere and it most certainly could apply today.
‘“If you’re awake at this age without pain, you’re dead”, an elderly lady had told someone in line at the Konsum.’
Berlin, 1989, Bernt Zeiger is woken at four thirty am by the torture of the street cleaning truck’s suction pump. Then he hears his blind neighbour moving around in the next door flat. He is torn between reporting him to the Bureau for Suspicious Activity and Class Enemy Progress or waiting. Zeiger is curious about Schreibmüller’s ability to attract the ladies, he is envious. Once reported there’s no going back, an officer could be on the way to interrogate Schreibmüller the same day, for the moment he doesn’t report the man. Zeiger has an early meeting at Hohenschönhausen gaol, he hasn’t been there for nearly twenty-five years. That was when he witnessed the interrogation of the young physicist, Held, from the Berlin Technische Universität. Zeiger is keen on getting the meeting over with, then, as usual, he will make his way to the cafe to see Lara but she hasn’t been there for a month now, he is disturbed by this. Lara is missing, it’s difficult to ask questions, to raise the matter officially, it is dangerous for himself and for Lara. Everyone has a file but no one wants attention drawn to it, what if it was his colleagues who took Lara, what then? As he searches clandestinely we learn more about Zeiger, his upbringing, the tragic death of his parents, the surrogate love of the state. There is much more to the relationship between Zeiger and Lara than pleasantries over coffee every morning. What is this preoccupation?
Twenty-five years earlier – Held was alerted to the fellowship at an American university in Arizona by a colleague. When held applies the authorities decide to let him go but with a mission to spy on the Americans. When Held returns from Arizona he is a changed man, he is unwilling to reveal what he has learned, or what happened to him. That is when they decided to torture him, something that Zeiger witnesses. Zeiger is given the task of investigating Held, he is to befriend him, gain his trust, ultimately to betray him – he does.
Zeiger liked Held, he is haunted by that betrayal and it becomes clear that the past is very relevant to Zeiger’s current dilemma, the disappearance of Lara. As the old man re-examines his life the state is also about to undergo its own transformation, the wall will soon come down, the relationship to the citizens will change. Intelligent and thought-provoking but also deeply funny.
Riverrun Books, hardback, ISBN 978-1529403596, 11th Aug 2020
Personal read 4*
Group read 3½*
The Seven Doors by Agnes Ravatn
Ravatn had already established a reputation as a literary novelist and short story writer in her native Norway before her first thriller, The Bird Tribunal, became a much lauded international best seller. A dark slice of Euro-noir that made the most of its bleak landscape and brooding atmosphere to deliver a fraught, impactful tale with a surprising ending. Her follow up The Seven Doors is a psychological drama that exhibits the traits that endeared readers of dark fiction to The Bird Tribunal but this novel has a lighter touch, no less haunting but with a keener eye for the foibles that make us human and at times ridiculous, that is be cringingly funny. This is undoubtedly a literary thriller, Ravatn delivers rounded and full portraits of her characters, even when they are slight or shadowy presences in the story. At times it’s almost like reading two novels, one dealing with the mystery of the young women who appears to have abandoned her child and vanished and, the other dealing an aging academic re-evaluating her life. Of course, the two coalesce and the chapters away from the mystery are deeply relevant, how this investigation matters so much to the English professor, who only appears to have a tangential connection to the victim, is fascinating. The missing woman becomes an important part of her life long before she comes to understand it’s significance for her own family. What she’s finds will be a personal revelation. A lot of the humour comes form Ravatn’s literary and psychological references, the Novel is has fun with the juxtaposition of academic analysis and real life and the transfer of ideas and skills from one to the other. A gentle tilt at ivory towers.
Mads and Nina are about to lose their house to a compulsory purchase order, the building is on the route of a new light railway. Mads seems unmoved playing with their granddaughter as the lawyer explains the ramifications, but this was Nina’s childhood home and it bothers her. Of course, with the compensation they can get a place closer to the university and that would make her life easier. They also have a house is Birkeveiken, inherited from his aunt, but that has been rented out for years. It was always intended that their daughter Ingeborg and her family would have it one day, they aren’t contemplating moving there. Ingeborg has designs on it though, she tells her mother that her current place is infested and they have to move out, Ingeborg is pregnant so they need more space anyway. Ingeborg gets her mother to take her to the Birkeveiken house where she browbeats the tenant Mari, who has a three year-old son are staying, even offering moving expenses. Nina is ashamed of the way Ingeborg pushes the woman to leave so that she can have the house, (the tension, awkwardness and embarrassment of the situation is palpable and excruciating). Ingeborg can’t help feeling she knows Mari. A few days later Nina is about to stick up for the tenant to her husband but Mads says Mari has already moved out, so there’s nothing to stop Ingeborg taking the place. Nina returns to her teaching and at a rare appearance at a literary event she suggests literary scholars would make good detectives, better than the police, in fact, because they are always investigating the psyche, motive and meaning in the things that people say. The local headlines the next morning say academic calls for lit. scholar police, Nina feels humiliated. As Nina is about to become involved in an actual investigation the possibility for humour and satire abound. When the news comes that Mari Nilsen has gone missing leaving her son with her parents Nina feels compelled to find out more, after all she was their tenant. Mari turns out to be Mari Bull wife of Nicolas Bull the conductor, she had performed Brahms at the Grieg Hall but has shunned the limelight for years. With her own problems perplexing her the chance to look at someone else is too good to resist, Nina mounts her investigation. What she doesn’t know is where it will take her.
A complex and satisfying mystery shrouded in literary themes that manages to be dark and haunting but also wickedly entertaining.
Translated by Rosie Hedger
Orenda Books, paperback, ISBN 9781913193386, out now as eBook, paperback 17/9/20
Personal read 4*
Group read 4½*
Reviewed by Paul Burke