“Your problem these days is getting information, and the cops are the best source available. They gather information, collect it in a central location, and it’s always for sale…Plus, all these organized crime families and rings of Mafiosi just use the cops to eliminate their competitors.”
Massimo Carlotto, who has achieved as much fame for his noir mysteries involving the Mafia in Italy as he has for his seven year incarceration for a murder he did not commit, puts his knowledge of law enforcement, lawyers (one of whom betrayed him personally), the criminal justice system, and the Mafia to use in this up-close-and-personal look at the growing power of international Mafias. Set primarily in Padua, just west of Venice, making it a good storage spot for illegal drugs brought in from the Adriatic, the novel introduces Marco, “the Alligator” Buratti, the owner of a small bar called La Cuccia, in which he shares ownership with Max La Memoria, “The Memory.” Together they also do investigations. Beniamino Rossini, a smuggler and armed robber, who was in prison with both of them, is also available to help out.
When Sylvie, Beniamino’s belly dancer-lover vanishes without a trace, the three men set to work turning the underworld upside down, finding evidence to suggest that the kidnapping was related to a huge drug robbery from two years ago. The Institute of Legal Medicine of the University of Padua had stored fifty kilograms of narcotics, including thirty kilograms of heroin and ten kilos of cocaine, for toxicological testing of the active ingredients. Access was blocked by an armored door, requiring a magnetic card and alphanumeric code for entry, but the robbery had taken place without any damage to the locks and by deactivation of the alarm system. Clearly, an inside job.
Shifting back and forth between the robbery and the present, Carlotto crafts his dark and terrifying story from the viewpoint of Buratti and his friends, none of whom have any qualms about doing whatever is necessary to gain information that will allow them to free Sylvie. When they discover a signet ring under the seat of Sylvie’s car, Marco Buratti and his friends recognize it immediately as belonging to a man they murdered two years before. They had left it under the seat of that victim’s car as a warning, and its reappearance forces them to make connections that they do not want to make. They are helped in their investigation by their friendship with Morena Borromeo, a prostitute who has become an informer. For a very high price Morena can often get information through pillow talk with influential people—in business, in the police, among lawyers, and among Mafia low-lifes.
Carlotto compresses time throughout this novel, telling what amounts to a three-hundred page novel in fewer than two hundred pages, and readers may find themselves flipping back and forth to the table of contents to remind themselves whether they are in Padua, Grenoble, or Lugano and whether the date is 2004, 2006, 2008, or 2009. Buratti and his associates must investigate criminals and criminal enterprises that cross the boundaries of many countries and territories, all with their own internal Mafias. “The boundary [of Italy] and eastern Europe is controlled by a cartel. Aside from the Croatians, the Bulgarians, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Turks, and the Russians,” the Serbian intelligence services and the Kosovar Mafia are also angling for power in northeast Italy, trying to control the flood of drugs coming from Morocco and Algeria. Author Carlotto is effective in explaining the economic conditions in northeast Italy which have led to the “illegal machinations [that] were the order of the day in every sector of hard-working Northeast Italy…The Mafia money made the wheels spin round, business was booming, and there was a positive synergy with legal businesses of all kinds.”
Despite their willingness to use violence and murder to accomplish what they regard as right, Marco Buratti, Max La Memoria, and Beniamino Rossini remain “human” in the hands of the author. All have ordinary interests that make it possible for readers to identify with them, despite everything else. Buratti is a lover of the blues and attends concerts, Rossini is passionately protective of his beloved Sylvie, and Max is a lover of fine cooking. Though the action is fast and furious, and the many characters are often hard to keep track of as the various international Mafias act to protect their interests, Carlotto’s novel is a satisfying noir achievement, written with insight, intelligence, and passion, even as its characters often seem to be living hopeless lives.
Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on the Spanish language website: http://blogs.rtve.es/asuntospropios/2008/4/2/-esta-nasa-
His biography is here: www.massimocarlotto.it
Padua’s marketplace is shown on http://www.italianvisits.com
The very early blues singer depicted at the end of the review is Alberta Adams, whose classic CD is given to Marco by Morena. That CD, Born with the Blues, is listed on http://www.amazon.com with samples of her music.