Published by Abacus
The American by Nadia Dalbuono
Published by Scribe Publications
The Vatican has provided inspiration to novelists of all kinds for years and so it is no surprise that two crime writers have used its secretive powers as the basis for their latest thrillers.
Donato Carrisi, who studied law and criminology before writing for film and television, won prizes and many international plaudits for his first novel, The Whisperer. Now, in his fourth, he addresses the problem of evil, which has intrigued philosophers since Epicurus. If there is an omnipotent and benevolent god, how can evil exist? The Hunter of the Dark offers a personification of evil in a serial killer of couples, who is working in Rome. Hunting him is a priest, Marcus, with a terrible past.
After being shot in the head, Marcus lost all memory of his identity and history. All he knows now is what he’s been told by a fellow priest, Clemente, who was at his bedside in hospital when he first recovered consciousness. They are apparently members of the penitenzieri, priests who must work on the boundary between good and evil, acknowledging no human ties and asking for no reward other than the knowledge of their own obedience to their superiors in the Vatican.
I don’t know enough about the organization of the Catholic church to do more than take Carrisi’s penitenzieri at face value, but they provide an excellently original kind of detective. The investigation itself is not particularly startling and, naturally, involves puzzles, false leads, damaged children, sex, violence and mortal danger to various appealing characters. But the narrative moves with gratifying speed.
What makes this novel more interesting and thought-provoking than many is the central philosophical question and the light it sheds on the eternal popularity of crime fiction. As Carrisi writes in ‘A conversation’ at the end of the novel, ‘There’s a strange element in our nature that feels a dangerous attraction to what is wicked... It’s a fact that the names of criminals are always remembered, rarely those of their victims.’
The main thought that this novel provoked in me, however, was that the dwindling of congregations in all kinds of churches may have less to do with the death of deference and a growing dislike of hierarchies that have been seen to provide shelter for the cruel, the corrupt and the concupiscent, and a great deal more to do with scientific discoveries about the workings of the brain and mind. After all, who now worships the sun or offers sacrifices in the hope of persuading it to rise again tomorrow?
Documentary director Nadia Dalbuono does not worry over the meaning and purposes of evil in The American, but she does address the Catholic church’s political machinations, suggesting that it has links with both organized crime and international crime-fighting agencies such as the CIA. The novel begins with a hanging corpse, highly reminiscent of that of Roberto Calvi, who was found under Blackfriars Bridge in London.
This corpse is discovered in Rome and sets Detective Leone Scamarcio on a dangerous investigation that leads him back into his own family’s past in organized crime, through painful dilemmas in his relationship with the beautiful Aurelia, across the oceans to the United States and back again to Rome and the Italian countryside. Dalbuono includes a lot of eye-watering information about Italian politics and the church itself, and Scamarcio is a good character. But her storytelling is much less slick than Carrisi’s and the narrative is sometimes bogged down both by the quantity of information and by over-detailed accounts of Scamarcio’s not terribly interesting thought processes.
But anyone heading to Rome could read either of these novels with advantage. Both would add a real frisson to sightseeing in the Eternal City.