|Jul/Aug 2008 Reviews & Interviews|
Translated by Howard Curtis
Bitter Lemon. 2007. 249 pp.
The Streets of Babylon.
Translated by Sarah Death
Marion Boyars. 2008. 288 pp.
Gianrico Carofiglio continues his series of legal thrillers with his latest Guido Guerrieri title, Reasonable Doubts. These are not mysteries (or even thrillers) in the traditional sense; while there is certainly a level of tension throughout as Guerrieri tries to get to the truth, there are no car chases or late-night episodes of running for your life. Instead the author dwells more on thoughtful consideration of the right thing to do and the nasty backroom deal-making that is so prevalent in society but rarely exposed. Guerrieri does tread on some dangerous territory, but the bigger concerns are for his soul, or at least his morals, in this new book. The question he must answer, while trying to prove his client innocent, is what kind of man he chooses to be. Pretty heavy literary stuff, but Carofiglio pulls it off wonderfully, with the wry sense of humor and world weariness that readers have come to expect from this character.
The mystery is fairly straightforward: Fabio Paolicelli was returning from vacation with his wife and daughter when his vehicle was searched at the border and a large number of illegal drugs were discovered. Paolicelli admitted guilt and received a harsh sentence. Now his wife wishes to hire Guerrieri to prove her husband innocent. They both admit that he pleaded guilty merely to protect his family (there was a suggestion that his wife would be charged as well) and his initial attorney was someone they had never met who, in retrospect, seemed to have come to their aid for some rather unsavory reasons. Guerrieri must decide if he can believe his client and from there figure out just who took advantage of his car and loaded it up with the drugs. Things get complicated pretty quickly, though, when Guerrieri recognizes Paolicelli as a bully from his childhood and doesn't really want to help him; it gets even worse when he can't get the wife out of his mind and she seems to feel the same way.
Yeah, you can see where all this is going.
The drug trail is complicated but the author lays it out perfectly as Guerrieri works to uncover the true criminals while still remaining uncertain as to how far he wants to take the case. Along the way he exhibits his trademark sly wit and makes several pop culture references that will likely amuse American readers. (Ben Grimm, Schwarzenegger, and The Twilight Zone for just a few). Guerrieri is also a particularly literary character (he reminds me a bit of Spenser in that way) and mentions James Joyce, The Long Goodbye and Grace Paley, among others. Heck—this is a character who mentions Bob Dylan's "Hurricane" at one point. While the book is certainly set in Italy, American readers will feel right at home and likely fall as hard for Guido Guerrieri as I have.
Switching gears a bit, (and changing countries), with The Streets of Babylon Carina Burman has written a mystery about a Swedish novelist who must find her missing companion in 1851 London. Euthanasia Bondeson is an independent woman of a certain age (near forty) who has traveled to London to meet with her publishers and continue a pleasant research trip on a new novel. She and her companion Agnes make some society friends at the Great Exhibition and Euthanasia seems to develop some romantic feelings for one of them, but an afternoon tour of the British Museum ends in catastrophe when Agnes goes missing. As the hours go by and it becomes clear that she has not simply gotten lost, Euthanasia finds herself forced to consider that the very beautiful Agnes has been kidnapped. She files a report and, along with Welsh police inspector Owain Evans, begins an investigation into the seamier side of London. The search for Agnes takes her from the homes of the very wealthy to a "molly" house populated by transvestites. She meets a man of God, some prostitutes and a middle class matron who hides a family secret. Nothing is as it seems as Euthanasia and Owain steadfastly follow Agnes' trail. Our protagonist never falters in her determination to discover what happened, however, and capture the perpetrator of this dastardly crime.
She is so totally Amelia Peabody as a Swedish novelist that I really could hardly contain my joy.
There is a lot to enjoy in The Streets of Babylon, from the wonderful job Burman does of creating the physical and social atmosphere to the delight of her protagonist, a character who is both sensible and, when it comes to the novel she writes throughout the book, decidedly eccentric. She is certainly fearless and unconventional (donning male attire when necessary) but also quite confident that if Agnes is alive, she will do all she can to survive until Euthanasia can find her. These are not the kind of women to faint away at the first sign of trouble, and to refer to them as "plucky" would be a severe understatement. Euthanasia is vividly portrayed and of high intelligence; she's also not above the occasional kiss with an appealing man when the opportunity arises (shades of Peabody yet again). But characters are only part of the appeal here as the plot spins across the city and in more than one direction. There are villains aplenty in mid-19th century London and Euthanasia seems to meet more than her share. Fortunately she is plenty capable enough to take on the bad guys (and finish writing her work-in-progress). I was quite pleased to discover the work of Carina Burman with Streets of Babylon and look forward to more books with this wonderful character.