Sanctuary by Luca D’Andrea

Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor

Review by Basil Ransome-Davies, 5 September 2019

Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em/And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum. Organised crime is an institution, and like almost all major institutions   – banks, for example – it is hierarchically structured. In Sanctuary Robert Wegener – Herr Wegener, as he likes to be known – is a regional gangster chief in an Alpine area of Italy close to the Austrian border. He’s a big cheese, arrogant and ruthless, who can enforce his will over a wide locality. However, he’s not the biggest of big cheeses. The Consortium, i.e. the Mob, is grander and more powerful, a national setup. Both ambitious and audacious, Wegener deliberately piques the Consortium’s interest by having one of its illicit cargoes – a  consignment of sapphires – hijacked, making sure that the drivers know his identity and arranging for the vehicle’s return ‘complete with a full tank, an oil change and my sincerest apologies’. The gemstones wait to be returned.

It’s a smart, chutzpah move. The Consortium’s response, delivered by a silver-haired lawyer is ‘Wait for instructions’. It seems Wegener’s bold initiative will be rewarded. A hook-up with an outfit higher in the pecking order augurs an expanded future. But the lawyer also delivers a caveat: ‘Beware of disappointing my clients, Herr Wegener. Beware.’ Unfortunately he has pissed off his wife, Marlene, to the extent that she leaves him, first stealing the pouch of sapphires from his safe. Her not fully thought-out plan is to start a new life with her love, ‘Klaus’ (so far an off-page character), to be funded by selling sapphires. That decision, which will compromise her husband with the Consortium, prompts a hectic escape through unfamiliar territory cut short when Marlene loses her way and drives her Mercedes over a precipice in a remote mountainous zone near the frontier. It’s a fortunate fall though, as she is rescued by Simon Keller, a solitary pig-keeper and herbalist living apart from the world, a man in tune with nature. They find a mutual accord, and romance beckons – but problematically, as always. The mysterious Klaus is supposed to be in the love equation, not Simon, so what happens there? More dramatically, the Consortium has appointed a hit man to kill Marlene. More dramatically still, the hit man is only known as The Trusted Man – a title, however ironic, that chauffeurs him over the line between individual and Legend. And to pile it on further, Wegener is frantic to cancel Marlene’s punishment; he is still foolishly smitten with the woman who betrayed and robbed him.

Passions spin the plot. There is a rich complexity of rival interests here which feeds a story that blends crime, history and folklore in a tense though reader-friendly style. The past, especially its dark and traumatic events, is interleaved with the present to create a perspective on characters warped and damaged by the actions of a previous generation, struggling with uncontainable emotions.  One central motif is classical – the experience of a woman whose ‘bolt’ for freedom traps her in jeopardy. As the narrative chicanes, taking a darker turn, setting up violent encounters and crucial revelations, the puzzle of Marlene’s involvement with an invisible Klaus is finally solved. The Trusted Man, moving through events with a sub-zero, almost superhuman detachment, assumes the dimensions of a pursuing Nemesis. Carbone, a dodgy, two-faced cop enters the web of intrigue, fear and loathing. As the shadow of the Consortium recedes, more elemental conflicts supplant it. The South Tyrol’s remote mountain geology and its punishing weather – ‘rock and ice’ – contribute to an increasingly Gothic tone, suggesting a hostile or indifferent Nature. This growing mood of fatal encounters is enhanced by Marlene’s tenacious possession of the one item of personal value she took with the sapphires on absconding: a volume of the rural folk tales, many of them terrifying, collected and edited by the Brothers Grimm. They connect her to her childhood, before the marriage that gave her wealth and comfort but tied her to a brutal, conniving criminal.

All this is powerfully related as the body count rises irresistibly, helping to fashion a validly melodramatic end game. Figures from the grotesque assembly of peasant superstition are symbolically invoked to thicken the atmosphere of fatal encounters – the Kobold, a shape-shifting folk-devil; Vulpendingen, the freakish animals created by mutant taxidermy. It’s the kind of material that would once have been labelled ‘strong meat’, yet it avoids sensationalism by underlining the humanity of its people, conditioned as they are by horrific back stories (like Thomas Harris in Hannibal Rising, D’Andrea presents the violent chaos of World War II as a historic pathogen of evil). This is a book that can be enjoyed as several levels, though I feel that comparisons with Stephen King undersell it. All due respect to Stephen King, you understand, but Sanctuary reminded me of a distinction made by Edgar Allen Poe, the supreme 19th century master of psychological horror, who wrote, ‘[my] terror is not of Germany, but of the soul…. I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results.’ Not the Gothic box of tricks then, ghosts and monsters, hocus-pocus and occult powers, but the human mind, the human heart and the often buried motives that drive terrible human actions. Is there also ‘redemption’ in Sanctuary? You decide.

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Luca D’Andrea, Sanctuary (Maclehose Press: London, 2019). 978-0857058652, 376 pp., hardback.

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