This immensely enjoyable chiller/thiller is a superb follow up to last year’s bestseller, The Mountain. This novel demonstrates that D’Andrea has no problem at all with ‘second album syndrome’, Sanctuary is a brilliant piece of storytelling. The author has taken a classic premise, the hunt for a gangster’s ‘errant’ wife, spiced it up a little with a couple of unforeseen plot divergences and given it a contemporary feel. Short, sharp chapters are seamlessly interspersed with back story, and it’s only at the end of this page turner you realise just how rich and deep this story is. It’s a confrontation of good and evil but heavily nuanced. Wegener, for example, the husband, is a brutal murderer but we come to understand the origins of his perverse ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, which began with surviving WWII (to be clear, I do mean understand not empathise). All the major characters are surprising and damaged by their dark histories. The fascinating detail of the past makes the story, which truly plumbs the depths of the human psyche, believable. The style is confident and easy, the plot is straightforward but emotionally complex. For me, this is a better novel than The Mountain, there is less to distract the reader from the novel’s heart. Sanctuary delves into the past to reveal how the present is always affected by it. Perhaps this is a warning, it’s certainly a plea for remembering. Sanctuary is at times shocking, it’s always exciting – this is a perfect summer read.

1974. It begins with a robbery. Marlene, twenty-two years old and trapped in a marriage/prison, is alone in the house. She faces the safe in the bedroom, Marlene has the combination but what she is about to do will change her life for ever. Betraying a man like her husband, a man with no forgiveness, no heart, is an irrevocable decision. Inside the safe are twenty million lira in bank notes, a pistol, ammunition, and a note book – a list of creditors and debtors, worth a small fortune, a book steeped in blood, a life sentence for Wegener. She ignores these, Marlene is only interested in the small velvet pouch containing the sapphires, this she takes. Engulfed in fear, she moves quickly now, through the house, out to the car and away from the river Passer villa. It’s cold, the weather is closing in and the roads are treacherous. With luck her husband won’t miss her until the morning but he will hunt her down. Wegener is a forty-year career criminal; intimidation, contraband, violence and murder are his stock in trade. Marlene knows the Carabinieri are in her husband’s pocket, she wants to avoid the local station, so she takes the back roads. The maps are poor, she gets lost quickly, these roads are unmarked. Conditions worsen, the car skids, tumbles, and crashes; her last conscious thought is of Klaus, the sole reason she finally betrayed Herr Wegener.

The next morning the screams coming from Herr Wagener’s bedroom chills the housekeeper, Helene and even the muscle, Moritz. They hide from Herr Wegeners’ anger. He can’t believe Marlene would betray him, she loves him, she is afraid of him, she is his. The evidence is conclusive: The house wasn’t broken into, the safe combination was used and Marlene is gone, it must be her. The only other ones who knew that the sapphires were in the safe are the consortium, and he was due to hand the gems to them anyway. The consortium will demand payment/compensation, there will be a price for this mistake. Marlene must die.

Simon Heller is a mountain man, a peasant, a hunter, a loner. It’s pure chance that he found the woman in the car, barely alive, he rescues her. He knows she is in trouble, as she recovers he discovers that Marlene has more secrets than the stolen gems, she slowly comes to realise that Simon has secrets of his own. Innocence and guilt are floating concepts.

Wegener questions anyone who may know where Marlene has gone but the consortium insist on an ‘expert’ to resolve the matter. The Trusted Man: ‘He’s a weapon.’ Once the contract is placed it cannot be rescinded. Capitan Carbone of the Carabinieri, owned lock, stock and barrel by Wegener, discovers who Klaus is.

The premise/set up is a mouth-watering prospect, and the fact that the story follows a path you won’t see coming, tangentially touching on the horror genre, is exhilarating. The nature of evil and power are explored. The atmosphere is oppressive, dark, scary. The mountain setting and the changing weather are an external reflection of the characters interiors and a constant companion to their thoughts and actions. From the weather causing the crash, and the storm reflecting Wegener mood the morning after Marlene disappears, to the local topography and character understanding of the area, the background is crucial to the way the story plays out. It’s difficult to explain but some novels have a sense of poetic balance, in this case that partly comes from fighting fire with fire.

D’Andrea reflects on the war in a region where national tensions among the population, German versus Italian, add to the complex background to the story and the motivation of characters. But I don’t want to say much about that or the Kobold, the local legends and superstitions that also feature here (the novel is well grounded though). Sanctuary won the 2017 Scerbanenco Award, the prestigious Italian crime award. The novel is beautifully translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor.

Sanctuary is a standalone story but it shares a setting with D’Andrea’s debut, The Mountain, a complex and chilling mystery. If you like Sanctuary you will also enjoy The Mountain.

Paul Burke 5/4

Sanctuary by Luca D’ Andrea
MacLehose Press 9780857058676 hbk Jul 2019