Evening Standard Best Books of 2018
Robert Fox: “Gianrico Carofiglio’s The Cold Summer (Bitter Lemon Press, £8.99), a tale of intrigue and plot in Puglia is more than a Mafia vs cop thriller. It is a wonderful portrait of Italy’s south today. The cast is led by beguiling Left-leaning Carabiniere Pietro Fenoglio, a devotee of Bertrand Russell, Camus and Italo Calvino. The sly side comments of this overlooked author, a former judge and senator, make him a contemporary Italian George Orwell.”
“The worst part isn’t seeing the bodies.…The worst part is breaking the news to the victims’ relatives. Especially if the victims are children.”
In Carofiglio’s (A Fine Line, 2016, etc.) latest, it’s up to Pietro Fenoglio, a middle-aged carabiniere with a penchant for philosophy, to investigate the kidnapping and murder of the young son of Nicola Grimaldi, a powerful crime boss, and determine if it’s part of the violence tearing apart Grimaldi’s organization or just a tragic coincidence. A former anti-Mafia prosecutor, Carofiglio sets his tale in Italy’s Apulia region during the cold, rainy spring of 1992 as Grimaldi’s top lieutenants are turning up dead or missing. Their deaths aren’t a surprise to him; he knows all crime families, eventually, turn on each other. But the boy’s death is different; it should have ended with the ransom money and the boy’s return, not his body dumped in an abandoned well. “It’s like a brainteaser,” Fenoglio tells a colleague. “Whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t make sense.” Carofiglio gives an inside view of Grimaldi’s Società Nostra thanks to police interviews with a Grimaldi turncoat who wants protection from Grimaldi’s wrath. Occasionally these interviews go on too long, but what makes up for that is Carofiglio’s engaging main character. Fenoglio is a sensitive, polished figure who has managed to keep his idealism intact in a career meant to break it; he is as comfortable philosophizing as he is citing the public safety code. When he recalls a joke about a drunkard searching for his keys under a streetlight rather than in the dark street where he lost them, he realizes his search is failing for the same reason: “We look where it’s light, even though that’s exactly how not to solve the problem.”
Solving this case, Carofiglio shows us, requires a leap into the darkness.
In the summer of 1992, two real-life anti-Mafia prosecutors and their companions were assassinated in a pair of car bombings by the Sicilian Mafia, as Carofiglio (The Silence of the Wave) notes in a brief introduction to this fine police procedural. To the alarm of Marshal Pietro Fenoglio, a Carabinieri officer based in Bari, the Mafia wars have spread that same year from Sicily to Italy’s Puglia region. In particular, Fenoglio investigates the case of Damiano Grimaldi, a son of Nicola Grimaldi, the head of one of the warring factions, who was kidnapped on his way to school. Despite his parents paying a ransom, the boy’s body is discovered three days later down a well. Nicola vows revenge on his enemy Vito Lopez, who immediately surrenders to the police. Lopez is debriefed, confessing to a whole range of crimes, including murder, but swears that he didn’t take the child. In a number of long but fascinating interrogation scenes, Fenoglio gets closer to the truth. This standalone is sure to win Carofiglio, a former prosecutor who specialized in organized crime, a wider U.S. audience.
Who better to tell you how the Mafia works than the man who in real life was an Italian prosecutor and advisor to the government’s anti-Mafia Committee? His latest tale is set during the upsurge in Mafia violence in 1992 during which two of the most prominent anti-Mafia prosecutors in Sicily and those accompanying them were murdered by the mob. Here we learn of the gang wars going on at that time in Apulia. Forget the hype. Carofiglio’s Mafia is not a supranational highly organised criminal network of unholy families but a ragbag of violent street gangs, each defending its turf and squabbling – albeit murderously – with its neighbours.
What will happen when the son of one such gang leader is kidnapped and murdered? It’s down to Carabinieri officer Pietro Fenoglio (Carofiglio’s new series hero) to stop the mayhem. This at times meditative book teaches us much about gangland’s childish rituals and Italian police procedure but still racks up some tension before its realistic conclusion. It’s a book for adult readers, about gangsters who are little more than viscously bad boys.
The cold summer of the title is the actual summer of 1992, and the notorious assassinations of the: "two most prominent anti-Mafia prosecutors in Sicily" that took place that year, in May and July, actually figure (in the background) of the novel. These crimes are peripheral to the action in The Cold Summer, but an awareness of them -- a 'Historical Note' at the opening of the novel reminding readers what happened puts them front and centre -- hovers like a dark cloud over the story, for both the readers and the characters.
Marshal Pietro Fenoglio of the Bari Carabinieri is the central figure in the novel. He is forty-one, studied literature before he decided on a career in the police, and is having problems in his marriage. His wife Serena felt the need for a break; two months earlier she had moved out, and a summer assignment for work would take her out of town for a while anyway -- a period apart to get some distance and reässess things: "enough time to figure things out and hopefully come to a final decision". With Serena off-scene -- there's practically no contact with her for the whole novel --, Fenoglio's private life is pretty lonely and empty -- and so he can and does devote himself to his work. A somewhat philosophical straight arrow -- certainly in comparison to most of his colleagues -- he's a good police officer and he is respected, if not really liked, by his colleagues.
There's a new captain in the office, Valente, but he seems to quickly sense that Fenoglio can handle himself, and can be trusted, and so he doesn't interfere too much. From the first, Fenoglio is shown to act on his own initiative, and to take charge of his rather independent investigations.
There's considerable turmoil in the Bari underworld scene when the novel opens. As Fenoglio explains to the new captain, the local Mafia organization, run by a Nicola Grimaldi, seems to either be under attack from outside -- which looks unlikely -- or there's some sort of conflict within the organization. Several men in the organization have been attacked or have disappeared -- including Grimaldi's most respected lieutenant, Vito Lopez. Lopes seems to be the key -- and the question is whether he's been done away with, or is the one undermining Grimaldi's gang, or is just staying out of sight until whatever is going on blows over.
Then the police get a tip that Grimaldi's young son has been kidnapped, and a huge ransom demanded. Grimaldi, of course, has no interest in the police being involved, but they look into it anyway. The money was handed over, but the boy wasn't returned; soon, he's found dead.
Everyone -- especially Grimaldi -- suspects Lopez of being behind it -- and Lopez, knowing he won't survive on his own, turns himself into the police. He agrees to tell them everything he knows about Grimaldi's criminal organization -- and he knows a lot -- but insists he wasn't involved in the kidnapping. Fenoglio is inclined to believe him.
The Cold Summer is presented as a three-act novel -- the three parts even called 'acts'. It is very much a police procedural, closely following Fenoglio as he does his work. Carofiglio's own experience as a prosecutor also comes to bear, as the focus is often also on the legal procedures, right down to the use of specific kinds of search warrants; one chapter begins: "Article 247 of the Code of Penal Procedure is entitled 'Cases and rules of searches'" .... The second part of the novel is dominated by Lopez's confession-interrogation -- the statement he makes as part of his agreement with the police, answering their questions: this is basically a dialogue-transcript -- which Carofiglio does, however, repeatedly interrupt with the latest action and breaks in the ongoing case(s).
Lopez's statement is a primer of how the Mafia is structured and operates -- specifically Lopez's experience in Grimaldi's fairly small-time (but still representative) operation -- and this is certainly meant to give a good (and fairly thorough ...) idea of how the Mafia operates in general. It's reasonably interesting -- presumably more so to those interested in the details of organized crime logistics and procedures; certainly less so to those who just want the story to move forward.
Repeatedly, Fenoglio has to ask himself how he can and should act, as these cases test his rigid moral compass. Much of the time, it's pretty easy -- you don't accept free drinks or meals when you go out, for example (though most in the police do ...) -- but both in the situations he finds himself in, and in working together with a colleague with a bit more baggage -- and a greater willingness to do what needs be done, even if it's not strictly by the book -- he doesn't find it easy not to step outside some bounds.
The one case, against Grimaldi and his operation, goes well -- a great success. But the mystery of Grimaldi's son's kidnapping remains -- gnawing at Fenoglio. If the case against Grimaldi is a carefully built up one, in which the pieces fell conveniently into place -- supplied largely by the very willing Lopez -- the kidnapping remains baffling. It's a nice contrast.
As Fenoglio recognizes:
The problem is always the same: we look for meanings, even when there are none.
Investigations, too, are an attempt to construct order, to find a meaning. The risk, though, is that the need to be rational makes us lose sight of the most common characteristics of many crimes: their lack of meaning, their dizzying, inscrutable banality.
The resolution of the kidnapping case also comes with making an educated guess as to who could have been involved -- educated by previous police experience of the more dubious sort -- and then leaning on that person to flip them. Fenoglio gets another confession -- but that alone isn't enough to collar the one truly responsible for the crime. Good hard police work doesn't get them much closer, but a bit of procedure and a bit of intuition finally does -- though given the crime and the perpetrators Fenoglio hardly feels particularly triumphant. But, again, it's a job well done.
The second installment in a series featuring Pietro Fenoglio -- the first, Una mutevole verità, does not appear to have been translated into English yet --, The Cold Summer does give the sense of building up the character over several books -- as, for example, his relationship with Serena is only touched upon to a limited extent here (he misses her frequently, but that's almost it), and one is left with the impression that there certainly is, or will be, considerably more to it. Carofiglio presents enough detail about Fenoglio to make for a protagonist readers get a good sense of, but the author is in no rush to pad the picture yet; the strong outlines are enough for a book like this, and it leaves room for the series, and portrait, to grow.
The Cold Summer is a police-procedural that's certainly heavy on the procedure, which can, at times -- especially in the dialogue-transcript of Lopez explaining the Mafia-world --, feel a bit plodding. But the variety of moral issues that are raised -- in the Mafia, in the police, and in society at large -- are intriguing, and Carofiglio does weave these nicely into his story. That, the puzzle of the kidnapping (and then the complications in trying to resolve it), and an appealing protagonist are enough to make for a solid and quite enjoyable read.
Cold Summer selected by Evening Standard as one of three best crime books of October, alongside Pelecanos and Grisham novels:
Those who have read Carofiglio’s outstanding quintet featuring lawyer Guido Guerrieri will be familiar with “the incomprehensible violence of life”. The Cold Summer, the first in a new series of Italian jobs, introduces us to Pietro Fenoglio, a Carabinieri marshal in the Adriatic port of Bari.
A 10-year-old boy is kidnapped and, thanks to an anonymous tip-off, is soon found dead at the bottom of a well. His father, who just happens to be a big shot in Puglian organised crime, promises to eat the heart of the man responsible.
He suspects Vito Lopez, one of his disaffected deputies, who has gone Awol with a consignment of cocaine. When Lopez hears this he seeks refuge with the boys in blue by becoming a supergrass.
The Cold Summer by Gianrico Carofiglio takes place in 1992 in Apulia, southern Italy, where a war between mafia factions leaves Marshal Fenoglio and his carabinieri colleagues helpless onlookers.
A breakthrough comes in the most tragic way — an insurgent gangster, no longer safe on the streets following the death of a local godfather's son, wants to make a deal. But for Fenoglio, delivering justice to the child's killers will always be the priority.
Carofiglio irresistibly combines a tense police investigation with a philosophical examination of what honesty means in a corrupt environment.
LA Review of Books (LARB):
DO WE NEED ANOTHER mafia story? There are plenty of them, in fiction, film, and TV, portraying mafia families in the United States and Italy, and in other countries infected by organized crime. But Gianrico Carofiglio offers an unusually detailed and fascinating portrait, far beyond the clichés of crime families and godfathers, in his new The Cold Summer, along with a contrasting portrait of how the criminal organization and the police define and control reality.
Pietro Fenoglio has his rituals, particularly surrounding coffee (whether prepared at home or consumed in a bar) but also in the conduct of his job as a marshal of the Carabinieri in the southern Italian city of Bari, which overlooks the Adriatic Sea. In Carofiglio’s novel — the second in a new series featuring Fenoglio, but the first to be translated into English courtesy of Howard Curtis — the marshal’s rituals stand in stark contrast with the rituals of the mafia organizations of Puglia (the region of which Bari is the capital) and the realities of a mafia war and a kidnapping. The interplay of the police and criminal rites and of the abyss against which they protect reveals much about the inner workings of Italian criminal organizations, about recent Italian history, and about rituals in a much broader, philosophical sense, particularly seen in Fenoglio’s struggles to maintain order in his professional and even his personal life: his wife has recently left him, seeking time to rethink their relationship.
The events of the novel, set in 1992, are bracketed by two interrogations and by two events that marked for Italians a turning point in their nation’s history: the murders of the two most prominent anti-mafia judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Carofiglio himself has been an anti-mafia prosecutor, as well as the author of an acclaimed series of crime novels featuring lawyer Guido Guerrieri, in addition to several stand-alone novels (the series and two of the stand-alones have also been published in English). The national shock of the two prominent murders serves to ground Carofiglio’s story, about a local crime organization and actual events that occurred in Bari in the ’90s, in the context of the larger, better-known mafias of Sicily, Naples, and Calabria.
The novel begins with a desperate young man’s attempt to rob a cafe-bar, introducing us to the social milieu of Bari and to the marshal, who happens to be in the bar at the time and intervenes to protect the bar’s cashier. The encounter reveals Fenoglio’s empathy, even with criminals, and his ethical standards. Though tempted to simply let the would-be thief off, he charges him in accordance with the law:
“Fenoglio had a strong desire to let him go. He would have liked to tell the carabiniere at the wheel: stop and give me the keys to the handcuffs. Free the boy […] and throw him out of the car. He had never liked arresting people, and he found the very idea of prison quite disturbing. But that’s not something you broadcast when you’re a marshal in the Carabinieri”.
Afterwards, his superior officer, newly assigned to Bari, asks Fenoglio for a summary of the surprising mafia war which has started up in the region. No one can understand why there has been a sudden violent dispute within the organization headed by Nicola Grimaldi, also known as “Blondie” or “Three Cylinders” (everyone in the crime organization has at least one nickname). Vito Lopez, Grimaldi’s top lieutenant, has disappeared, along with his family, and everyone assumes that Lopez is dead. A further violent encounter between members of the gang is described in evocative terms:
“Thirty-two cartridges […] had been fired almost simultaneously […] like a hard-edged mass of lethal metal. A web in which you couldn’t help but become entangled. The question wasn’t who had fired the shot that had reached its target; the question was who had participated in weaving that web.”
The war reaches a culmination with the news that Grimaldi’s son has been kidnapped, an event that surprises everyone. Who would dare kidnap the child of a mafia boss?
The investigation of the kidnapping is complicated by the tradition of omertà, or silence, that pervades the mafia and everyone affected by the criminal enterprise. No one, least of all Grimaldi or his wife, will admit that kidnapping has even happened, much less that a ransom has been demanded. But everyone assumes that Lopez, if still alive, is behind the crime.
When Lopez suddenly appears and offers to turn himself in to the Carabinieri, through an acquaintance on the force, he becomes the subject of an interview that takes up most of the central third of the novel. The interview is fascinating in several ways. First, Lopez is an interesting character, called “The Butcher” not for the murders he has certainly committed, but for his middle-class background, unusual for a mafioso (his father owned an established butcher shop). Lopez’s testimony also reveals the inner structure of the local mafia, which is based on the larger and older organizations in Naples (the Camorra) and especially Calabria (the ’Ndranghèta). The organization has strict rituals, reminiscent of Masonic orders, with complex levels of initiation and hierarchy, laid out by the witness in considerable detail. The quasi-religious quality of the order can be seen in this passage:
[F]or the proper conduct of an affiliation or a promotion, a baptized place is necessary. When I say “baptized” I mean it must be a place expressly and stably equipped for affiliations in a ceremony of baptism, or else a different place but one that has first to be subjected to a kind of purification.
The rituals seem to prop up the alternate reality that the mafia requires for its stability and power. Just as Fenoglio needs his rituals of culture and law to struggle against chaos, Grimaldi’s organization (and the other more established mafias) need a ritually enforced “province of meaning” to maintain their grasp on the daily lives of their own members and the civilians they control and terrorize.
The description of the mafia hierarchy and the violation of norms seen in the kidnapping cause Fenoglio to consider the ordering, normative process in the criminal enterprise and his own profession: “Investigations, too, are an attempt to construct order, to find a meaning. The risk, though, is that the need to be rational makes us lose sight of the most common characteristic of many crimes: their lack of meaning, their dizzying, inscrutable banality.” The marshal also frequently remarks on the strict hierarchy within the Carabinieri, dictating the language used among the officers and lower ranks and even where they sit in an automobile. He remarks to the prosecutor that “[m]any of your colleagues, and almost all my superiors, love the rituals which ensure that other people acknowledge their authority.”
The language of the interview is also revealing. We see not the literal testimony of the accused, but the text as transformed into a legalism: “[H]is words were then transformed into the somewhat surreal language of a legal transcript.” The language of the Mafioso has been transformed almost ritually into the language of the police and the courts, in preparation for a trial rather than in discovery of a truth. Fenoglio resorts to an essay by Italo Calvino to explain to a colleague the artificiality and fragility of the relationship of language and reality or truth (his philosophical musings are frequent, and, according to the narrator, “digression into philosophical speculation was the most obvious sign of his frustration as a detective”).
One outcome of the translation of the verbal testimony into the typed statement is that the story is more comprehensible than it would be in the local dialect of the region and the slang of the mafia, but Carofiglio is also insisting on the importance of the order implicit in the shift in language: an order that he sees as vital to the sometimes tenuous maintenance of civilized, humane intercourse in Italy (and beyond).
The alternative to a humane order is demonstrated in the discovery of the kidnapped boy at the bottom of a well, following an anonymous tip. The death offers an insight into what lies beneath our carefully constructed, ritually reinforced reality: “[E]very semblance of meaning in the world collapses like the proverbial house of cards. The death of a child opens wide an abyss of pain and madness so deep you can’t see the bottom.” The death also mirrors in part a cause of the rift in Fenoglio’s own marriage: he has discovered that he is unable to have children, a fact his wife finds difficult to accept.
The interrogation of Lopez is just winding up when Fenoglio and the others involved in the case receive the news that Falcone has been murdered in Sicily. The impact of that event on the police and the country are emphasized in a melancholy conversation that Fenoglio has with prosecutor Gemma D’Angelo (also involved in the interrogation of Lopez) after the announcement of the death.
The novel shifts from the interrogation to the investigation of the kidnapping, a crime with which Lopez denies any involvement, though it is his fear of reprisals from the boy’s father, his own boss, that motivated his seeking police protection. Through a series of meetings with uncooperative witnesses and reluctant informants, Fenoglio moves slowly toward some understanding of what has happened, but it is finally an insight from one of the officers under his command that provides the clue that opens the case. What is revealed shakes the whole structure of both the criminal and the law enforcement organizations and strains Fenoglio’s ethical standard and ritualized decency.
The conclusion of the novel is marked by the end of the investigation but also by the car bombing that killed Borsellino in Palermo, an event that provokes a shift in Fenoglio’s personal life as well. The complex structure of Carofiglio’s narrative, with multiple structural and social parallels at the local and national level, contrasting criminal and civil worlds, and personal events in the lives of the characters, serves to reinforce the emphasis of the novel on the crucial role of structure in human life. But it is ultimately the ethical and sometimes contemplative Fenoglio who holds the whole novel together. His humanity holds out hope for some respite from the violence and corruption that lie behind all the story’s events. As he himself says of his role, what he does (and who he is) “gives meaning to chaos.”