The history of Italian detective fiction is no doubt very interesting, and different than the traditional conventions and outcomes of the genre. I think it has to do with the country’s turbulent history in the 20th century. The uncovering of the Mafia, the Fascist era, the post-war purges, the recrudescence of neo-fascism and its infiltration in national institutions, the explosive period known as the years of lead, the infamous Operation Gladio – NATO’s secret plan to halt communism in Europe – the connections between organised crime and government. Italy is a corrupt, secretive society with wounds still open dating back to many generations, but at the same a society that forgets quickly. Italian detective fiction therefore acts not is not just escapist fiction but often as a form of memory, a repository of the country’s seediest episodes.
Although I wish this were the introduction to my latest review of a Leonardo Sciascia novel, today I’m writing about Carlo Lucarelli and his Commissioner De Luca trilogy. Published between 1990 and 1996, the trilogy follows the travails of an honest, diligent, objective policeman from the final years of World War II to the landmark general elections of 1948.
My edition, an Italian collection of the three volumes, is barely longer than 300 pages. It can safely be said that the first two books – Carte Blanche and The Damned Season – are but novellas, Via delle Oche being the only one long enough to constitute a novel, barely. None of these books does a disservice to the genre. They’re gripping reads, even if pared down to the point one thinks they could have been better developed. This wasn’t the first time I had read Lucarelli. A few years ago I read his Almost Blue, another detective novel, about a woman detective and a young blind man searching for a serial killer in Bologna. I barely understood it so it’s meaningless to say I didn’t enjoy it, I was just learning Italian. What I have retained from it is the conviction that, had it been written in the ‘70s, filmmaker extraordinaire Dario Argento could have made a great giallo out of it. But anyway, a few years later my Italian is much better, and it was much easier to appreciate this trilogy.
Like most detectives, Commissioner De Luca is a bit bland. There are certain things he can’t help being: curious, upright, a workaholic, lacking a social life. These are the conventions, we accept them without passing judgement. Then there are the details that distinguish him from other detectives. De Luca was a venttotista, that is a man who enlisted in the force in 1928, when candidates needn’t have a degree, only pass the exams, which he did with excellent marks. In 1929 he solved the case of Filippo Matera, the Monster of Orvieto. (I googled him to know if he existed, but he appears to be an invention of Lucarelli) Mussolini himself sent him a note of commendation. De Luca was also the youngest agent to become a commissioner. Ironically the fact that he’s not a dottore is something that’s constantly being rubbed in his face in the third volume. In Carte Blanche, chronicling his final days as a cop in the Fascist regime, his colleagues show no class prejudice about his lacking a college degree. De Luca’s having joined the force during the ventennio, that is, the 20 years of the Fascist regime, is a matter that keeps coming back to haunt him. It’s not just that he was a cop during the regime, he was also a member of the Ettore Muti Brigade, a special unit of the Political Police, composed of black shirts and named after a World War I aviator and Fascist hero. This unit was responsible for torturing and killing political opponents, although De Luca vehemently repeats throughout the trilogy that he only did investigative work for there. As Carte Blanche starts, he’s been transferred back to Homicides.
It’s April 1945, De Luca is in Milan, the Northern redoubt of the Fascist regime after the Allied invasion. With his assistant, Pugliese, he investigates the murder of Rehinard Vittorio, a rich citizen and member of the Fascist Republican Party since 1944. He’s found castrated in his apartment. Preliminary investigations show that he had many connections to many influential people, for instance Sonia Tedesco, daughter of Count Tedesco, member of the Diplomatic Corps. Understandably cautious, De Luca is assured by his superiors that he will have no impediments to his investigation, since it must be shown that the law is respected in Fascist Italy.
Of course it’s not that simple. Witnesses disappear only to show up dead in SS headquarters, the Allies are bombing the city, and De Luca discovers that his name is on the list of the National Liberation Committee to be captured and tried for his complicity in Fascist crimes. On top of that, the ruling power, which promised De Luca not to interfere, is really using the investigation to get rid of some political opponents in a power struggle between factions within the party. The mystery, a bit dull and simplistic, is nowhere near as intriguing and exciting as the circumstances surrounding De Luca. Every action he makes serves only to show that he navigates in an environment hostile to the truth. The twist at the end, with its bittersweet irony, more than redeems the book’s weakest parts, and prepares the ground for part two.
In The Damned Season, De Luca is travelling in the Romagna countryside under a false alias. The Fascists have been taken down, but law and order haven’t reached all parts of Italy yet, there are still many pockets of partisans who’ve appointed themselves as the local authority and treat their villages as their own fiefdoms, free to do whatever they want, provided they don’t upset the Allies, the only power they fear. Because of his Fascist ties, De Luca is a wanted man. When a partisan confiscates his papers on the road, he thinks he’s done for. But instead the partisan, called Leonardo, takes him to the site of a mass murder, where a whole family was butchered. De Luca tries to feign indifference and amazement, but instinctively his old curiosity drives him to start asking questions, and he unmasks himself. Leonardo had recognised from the days when he had studied to join the Carabinieri. The partisan policeman is still anxious to be a real policeman one day, so he wants De Luca to help him solve the murder. Unfortunately their investigation leads them into other partisans, war heroes, local bosses, and secrets the partisans want to hide from the Allies.
The murder, again, is not very interesting: someone killed a whole family. At first they think it was to steal something, but later De Luca thinks it was to kill a specific person who had witnessed something dangerous, and he’s sure it has something to do with the execution of a local Count who cavorted with the Fascists. What makes the book interesting is the way the post-war is contrasted with the final days of the regime. And the differences aren’t many, which is what is so provocative. Although De Luca is determined to see the case through, Leonardo starts feeling conflicted when the blame starts pointing in the direction of his fellow partisans and particularly a local war hero called Carnera. The partisans are shown as an unruly and corrupted group, interested only in settling old scores and profiting from dead Fascists. People are already starting to forget the recent past and going back to post-war normalcy, rebuilding their lives and taking advantage of new opportunities. The new era already seems as corrupt as the Fascist one, and if De Luca could at least trust his colleagues in the force, he’s totally alone here.
In the final volume, Via delle Oche, it’s April 1948 and De Luca is back on the police force, seemingly rehabilitated of his past, having survived the Fascists purges. But instead of Homicide he’s put on Vice. Reunited with Pugliese, he investigates the death of a communist homosexual in a brothel that everyone wants to consider was suicide but that De Luca believes was a murder. Shortly after a photographer with communist ties shows up murdered, and De Luca tries to prove the two deaths are connected.
De Luca’s problem is that he’s perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time. Italy is having general elections in a few days, crucial elections which will decide Italy’s role in the new Cold War world. Either is turns socialist or goes conservative. The Christian Democrats and the Communists are vying for power in post-war Italy, mounting extensive propaganda campaigns and using terrorism even. A revolution is imminent. The Americans are watching, ready to intervene should Italy go red. So when De Luca discovers a sexual scandal involving a famous conservative and a prostitute, he’s ordered to back away. “This country is in need of rebuilding and not destroying,” De Luca’s superior explains to him. But since he didn’t back away for the fascists and the partisans, he’s not going to back away for democratic Italy either. No doubt to make a contrast with the power struggle of the first novel, here De Luca is caught between a power struggle between right and left, one side wanting to hush the scandal, the other wanting to use it to discredit its political opponents in the elections.
Once again the novel ends with an ironic twist for De Luca, who continues to pay a heavy price for being the only person with convictions in the whole of Italy. Or perhaps it’s his lack of conventions that makes him so dangerous. De Luca doesn’t follow any ideology that makes him sympathetic to a specific group, which is a current theme in the trilogy. He’s concerned only with the truth. In this he’s very similar to Inspector Amerigo Rogas, from Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger. I don’t think Lucarelli is as good as Sciascia, but their indignation obviously stems from the same sources that make Italian detective fiction so fascinating.