Monday, June 13, 2011

River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi

MacLehose Press/Quercus
originally published as Il fiume delle nebbie, 2003
translated by Joseph Farrell
259 pp.

Italian author Valerio Varesi adds his mark to the English-speaking (and reading) crime-fiction world with his series featuring Commissario Soneri of which River of Shadows is the first to be published in English.  According to their website, MacLehose will be publishing two more of Varesi's novels in the near future: The Dark Valley in 2012 and Gold, Frankincense and Dust in 2013.  River of Shadows definitely does not fall on the lighter side of crime fiction; it starts with a dark and gloomy atmosphere and never lets up.  Balanced against the series I'm currently reading by Andrea Camilleri, this book carries a pronounced shift in tone in terms of the main character, the crimes & their solutions, and even in terms of the landscape. Set both in Parma and along the banks of the Po River, the novel will take the reader on a journey not only along the misty river, but through the course of Italian history as well.

The novel opens with a first chapter that will set the atmosphere for the rest of the novel. The Po is flooding after four days of steady rain. At a boatman's club near a river jetty, a group of boatmen sit playing cards about eleven p.m., watching the action through the window, listening to their radio reports and exchanging information about the flood's progress along the banks.  They hear a noise and realize that a barge belonging to old Tonna, who is "more at home in wet weather than Noah,"  has just docked with his cargo of wheat. A cabin light is on in the barge, and in a little while, it seems that Tonna is preparing to take off again. While they try to figure out what's happening with the barge, the boatmen hear that evacuations have started along the edges of the river and the flood situation is becoming more intense. The light in the barge goes out and comes on again, and the barge sets off, minus navigation lights, leaving rope on the quay and the gangplank thrown sideways. As the boatmen ponder the meaning of this series of events, they radio a warning about the barge, and are all carefully following reports of Tonna's barge sightings on the river  The water is steadily rising, the club members are gradually taking equipment out of the club. At three a.m. they learn that the barge has run aground, and to their surprise, that no one was aboard. So what happened to Tonna?

In Parma, in the meantime, Comissario Soneri of the squadra mobile (The Flying Squad) is called to investigate the death of an elderly man who went through a glass window at a hospital. Some of the police think it's suicide, but a couple of clues left behind  lead Soneri to believe it's murder. The dead man was a bit of an oddball who would wander through different departments and talk to the patients.  While thinking about the dead man on the way back to his office, Soneri receives a call from his girlfriend Angela, who asks him if he's read the newspaper story about a barge that was adrift on the Po before going aground with no one on board. When she tells Soneri the barge operator's name of Anteo Tonna, he does a double take: the name of the man who went through the hospital window was Decimo Tonna.  In an intuitive moment, he understands that this is no coincidence -- and that the two crimes are definitely linked. But how?  He will spend the rest of the novel getting to the root of this puzzle, as he tries to figure out who the Tonnas were and who might have wanted them dead.

Soneri is an interesting figure. He has an ability to sense what's important, largely through interpreting the impressions he gets from other people. He's willing to sit quietly, waiting out those he's questioning, knowing that often it takes time for people to say what's on their minds. Although he leaves the background fact gathering to his colleagues, his strength is in how he takes the information and applies it to his own often-intuitive conjectures.  He is also clever at interpreting the landscape, not an easy task along the fogbound river.  Soneri is not a huge fan of technology, often forgetting that his cell phone needs an occasional battery charge, unable to even change his ring tone from its current setting.  As far as computers go, he leaves that to his co-workers and works from his gut.  He detests the politics involved in his work,although as his girlfriend notes, work is the only thing that really gets his attention. It also tends to cause a rise in his blood pressure. He has no problem sitting out in the cold, traveling the same ground over and over again -- anything that will help him find the truth.  The Commissario loves good food and very good wine, never turning down a delectable dish, especially those that remind him of his childhood, and although he forgets about his girlfriend sometimes, he makes up for it by humoring Angela's desire for sex in places where they might possibly be discovered.  Although Varesi does not really delve into the lives of his colleagues too much, they are obviously people on whom Soneri can depend. 

It is really the Po river and the people who live on its edges -- the boatmen, the fishermen, the families who have been there for generations -- that bring out the sense of place in this novel.  Varesi's descriptions of the water, the mist that envelops everything, the branches poking out over the top of the river are intense. Even the rain in the opening chapter takes on a life of its own.  His depiction of a terrible time in Italian history brings out the point that some memories will live on well past the moment of their beginnings, and that there are events both unforgettable and unforgivable which have stayed locked in time even though the world has moved on. This series is one to look forward to, not simply for the crime elements but because of the author's ability in setting up an atmosphere that lasts throughout the entire book.

 I liked River of Shadows and would definitely recommend it to readers of Italian crime fiction. You're not going to get another Salvo Montalbano here -- Soneri is a whole different ball game, much more serious, not someone you feel like you could hug when all is said and done.  On a crime-intensity level, it's also a step or two up the ladder, with little comic relief and much greater focus on what's at the root of the crime. I just can't get over how very descriptive Varesi's writing is, and although I read crime fiction mainly for the intensity level and the puzzle factor,  I also greatly appreciate a well-written story. 

This novel is on this year's shortlist for the CWA International Dagger Award. 

crime fiction from Italy


  1. I agree that the descriptions of the river (especially at the start) and the villages/river near the end are very evocative and strong in this novel. I thought the crime aspects weaker, but still enjoyed the novel, despite not liking the protagonist or his girlfriend very much.

  2. I found Soneri to be a bit of a cold fish, truth be told. But since I've been glued to Salvo Montalbano for a while , I just figured he seemed cold against Montalbano's character. My favorite characters in this novel were the old guys at the Boatman's club!

    Actually, the solution was slow in coming for me, and I'd guessed what had happened before all was revealed. But I do love an intelligent mystery, and one with descriptive writing, and this book was a bit of both.

  3. I agree, Nancy, about the cold fish and the Boatman's ;-).

    Have you tried Gianrico Carofiglio? I love those, about a lawyer with a conscience, set in Bari- first is Involuntary Witness.

  4. I have a few Carofiglio novels that I hope to be reading soon. I've read only great things about these books. I'll get there eventually!


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