The Extremist by Nadia Dalbuono

Reviewed by Marina Sofia

You might be forgiven for expecting this book set in Italy to be translated from Italian, given the Italian sounding name of the author. In fact, Nadia Dalbuono has studied in the UK, worked for many years as a TV consultant and documentary maker for Channel 4 and ITV, and writes in English. Yet she shows a native understanding of Italian politics and police intrigues, as well as a profound love for the landscape of Rome and Italy more generally. She spends half the year in Northern Italy, so her knowledge of the country remains cutting-edge. This is her fourth novel in three years in the Leone Scamarcio series, so she clearly has a lot to say. The tribal conflicts of the various law enforcement agencies in Italy go up more than a notch here.

The story seems very relevant to the present-day. Rome becomes the target of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks; several small Islamist groups take hostages at a number of locations across the city. One of the terrorists, Ifran, says he will only negotiate with Detective Leone Scamarcio from the Violent Crimes Unit, although Scamarcio has never seen him before in his life. It turns out that Ifran trusts him because he too is straddling two worlds, as the son of a Mafioso who has become a policeman. Hunted turned hunter, Scamarcio has struggled to be accepted by his police colleauges, so Ifran sees something of himself there. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, the rather lost-seeming young man, who came from Libya as a child with his parent, admits he has always struggled to be accepted by Italian society. Yet this seems to be more about more than personal revenge or even a generalised disenchantment with Western society. Ifran has stumbled upon something that baffles and overwhelms him. He thinks there is American involvement in the Islamist terror groups and he wants Scamarcio to help him prove it, to find out the truth about who is behind the planning and organising of an event scheduled to take place within the next 24 hours, which could result in far worse bloodshed.

Scamarcio is warned not to discuss his mission with anyone else nor to trust anyone, yet for some reason he trusts Ifran. So this becomes the fast-paced, race against the clock type of thriller of international conspiracy. It’s only a matter of time before Scamarcio’s obstinate and maverick way of handling things puts him on the wrong side of the law. He goes on the run and has to keep a low profile, as half of the Italian police force are on the look-out for him. This set-up is somewhat implausible, but undeniably tense, and the rest of the book is full of the investigation and action that Scamarcio undertakes in a desperate attempt to stop a large-scale horror. Promising leads seem to trickle into the ground and lead to dead ends. He doesn’t know whom to trust, is unable to protect those dear to him and reluctantly has to make use of his Mafia contacts. He finds some temporary allies along the way: nosy Italian journalist Rigamonti, naïve American TV reporter Woodman and an insider from the security forces.

Scamarcio discovers it is difficult to protect yourself when you don’t even know for sure who your enemy is. There is a violent Chechen that everyone seems to be terrified of, but whose side is he on? In a world of slippery truths, with violence and betrayal on either side, you start to wonder just who the extremists really are. It’s a dingy world, familiar to Le Carré readers, a landscape of spying and double-crossing, agents and double-agents, where nothing is ever clearcut or simple. Every time Scamarcio thinks he has found the answer to one question, five more problems and enigmas appear.

This book has all the staccato pacing and lean, muscular style you would expect of a political thriller, as well as a labyrinthine plot to test your little grey cells to the extreme. However, it also has complex and believable characters, and an understanding of nuance in both social and psychological observation. It is made clear to us that Scamarcio’s decisions and actions come at a personal cost for him, that he has to overcome his principles to contact people from his father’s past, that he doubts not only other people’s motives but also his own.

Longlisted for the CWA Steel Dagger for her previous work, Dalbuono shows she can produce thrillers that are as gritty and terse as any man’s efforts, but without the macho gesturing that can occasionally spoil those written by male authors. I haven’t read the other books in the series, but, judging by this one, I would say that the author is most definitely one to watch. She takes all of the elements which have become almost common-place in crime fiction set in Italy – police corruption, political fiasco, Mafia – and given them a compassionate and contemporary twist.

Marina Sofia blogs at Finding Time to Write 

Nadia Dalbuono, The Extremist (Scribe, 2018). 978-1911344650, 320pp., paperback original.

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