Reviewed by Linda Boa
Following The Few, the first in this series, The American sees our lone wolf detective, Leone Scamarcio, take on a case which leads him deeper into the political arena, where conspiracies are everywhere, murder is seen as the simplest way to solve an inconvenience (mass murder, in some cases), nearly everyone can be bought (‘silver or lead’, as the narcotraficantes put it), you don’t know who you can trust, and nearly everyone has an agenda. Par for the course in Italy, and perfect material for a novel for those who like their crime fiction flavoured with intrigue and politics; lies and skullduggery – a police procedural-cum-spy-cum-mafia novel is the best way I can describe it. The first two are my favourite genres of crime fiction, so you won’t be surprised when I say I absolutely loved it!
Leone works his cases alone, reporting directly and confidentially to his superior, Garramone. His father was a mafioso, and for that reason he is one of the most vetted police officers in Rome. I get the impression choosing the career he did was a “f*** you” to his father and a way of proving you can make an honest living in Italy – although with the economic situation, it’s getting harder and harder for your Average Joe. Also, due to the urgency required to find a missing child alive in the first novel, The Few, Leone had to call in help from his father’s old lieutenant, Piocosta – a favour which he was warned would have to be returned.
This novel begins with a man found hanging from the Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge, which faces the Vatican City. It’s almost a replica of the death of Roberto Calvi, “God’s Banker” – those of you old enough to remember will recall he was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982. A second autopsy ordered by his family showed he couldn’t have killed himself, due to the lack of rust that would’ve been on his shoes had he climbed up, and the fact his fingerprints were not on the building rubble found in his pockets to weigh him down. He’d also just bankrupted the Banco Ambrosiano, which was essentially owned by the Vatican Bank, and lost millions in mafia money he’d been laundering. On The American, shortly after the man is found hanging in Italy, news comes from the Vatican that a Cardinal named Abbiati has been stabbed and is dead. Obviously the Rome police have no powers within the Vatican, and are hearing little about the murder, but it seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
Scamarcio has some contacts from his time studying in the States, and one of them has a source who identifies the Bridge corpse as a Simeon Carter, who worked for the CIA. However, the Americans are already over sniffing around, demanding the corpse be handed over. When the Italian authorities refuse, they somehow take him from the morgue, and send a fake ID and autopsy report, saying he was an internationally wanted criminal for counterfeiting, had a string of aliases, and had committed suicide.
In between updates on Scamarcio’s investigation, Carter’s history is revealed. He worked in countries the Americans saw as being in danger of being taken over by Communist rule. Obviously this is something the Catholic Church do not want, so together with the Americans, they fund bombings and murders which are blamed on Communist factions, thus turning sympathy back towards the middle ground or right wing, and securing the church’s position in these countries, going back as far as helping to drive the Sandinistas out of Nicaragua, and funnelling money to Poland and Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement, an attempt to establish a trade union in a Communist country. Italy in the 1980s was in a poor economic state, and many were sympathetic to Communism, so Carter got involved in a series of large-scale bombings there, as well as in many other countries, with hundreds of innocent victims. However, he ensures that fingers are pointed to organisations with Communist sympathies.
Eventually, with all the pressure from the US, Scamarcio is told by Garramone to drop the case – after all, they don’t even have a corpse, and the US are not enemies you want to make. Being the stubborn man he is, though, he asks for leave and secretly heads to America to see what he can discover about Simeon Carter there, through his wife and his old friend’s source. But of course he gets to a stage where he knows far too much to for him to be left alone, and attempts are made on his girlfriend Aurelia’s life, as well as his own.
Please don’t think this book is all dry, political history – it’s very far from that indeed. It’s incredibly fast moving, with lots of action, double-crossing, and danger. Scamarcio is very attractive, and is very much a man who prefers to work alone, brooding over cases and only confiding in his boss Garramone – and even then, he only tells him so much. Towards the very end of the novel there is one of these really sublime twists you never see coming in crime fiction. And Italy, with its corruption, North/South divide, and the sense that you never really get to see the full picture or hear the full story, is a perfect setting for the Leone Scamarcio series – at least, I hope it’s to be a series. There’s also the problem that by now Leone owes his father’s old lieutenant, Piocosta, several favours – despite being told to stay away from him. Plotted as tight a drum, and with various other smaller threads to the novel, Nadia Dalbuono looks very much like being the name to watch when it comes to political intrigue. I’ll be very surprised if I read a more engrossing or cleverly written book this year.
Linda Boa blogs as Crimeworm, where this review first appeared.
Nadia Dalbuono, The American (Scribe, 2016). 978-1925228199, 368pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)