Every now and again a novel comes along that is so many things: crime novel, police procedural, political thriller, conspiracy thriller, social critique. Sometimes a book tries to tick more than one box but fails, the author overreaching their talents. But when a novel like this succeeds, and does so with apparent effortlessness, the result is something special.
So it is with Nadia Dalbuono’s The Few. The novel tells the story of Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a Mafiosi who has turned his back on the family business. Instead he’s signed up with the Rome police. Somewhere in the back-story his history has come back to haunt him and he is now distrusted by many of his colleagues. But he’s good at his job and has earned the grudging respect of others. One day his superior hands him a file containing incriminating photographs of the foreign secretary and tells him to look into the circumstances that they were taken. Scamarcio senses that with Italy’s poisonous history of political corruption, this case will prove his undoing, but orders are orders. When one of the other men in the photo ends up dead our protagonist’s fears appear to be validated. Off we spiral into a world of rent boys, prostitution, grubby political intrigue and murder.
Just a glance at the burgeoning crime fiction section of any decent bookshop will tell you that seemingly every day a new procedural is published. Take one flawed cop, place him or her in some exotic (or not so exotic) corner of the globe, sprinkle in a serial killer with an unusual method of dispatching his or her victims and away you go. Personally I find such books a chore and try to be a little more discerning. Thankfully there are writers like Dalbuono producing books like The Few.
While on the surface it might appear that Dalbuono’s novel has similarities with some of the more humdrum variety, I’m happy to report that they’re only peripheral. While Scamarcio has a colourful background, is single, lives alone and smokes the occasional joint, he’s not “damaged goods” or “flawed” in an obvious way. Neither is the setting overdone. Some novels seem to be as much travelogue as crime thriller, the author trying to show off their knowledge of the locale. In The Few it’s just a natural outcrop of the story, geographical detail never getting in the way of narrative. Indeed, the sense of place is mainly set by the tone of the plot itself, for this is an intrinsically Italian mystery. The novel deals with the labyrinthine political manoeuvrings that plague Italian politics, the fictional Prime Minister being recognisable by any reader with even a passing knowledge of Sylvio Berlusconi’s antics. While the mafia’s tentacles, which reach into the heart of the Italian state and make that country a byword for European corruption, are deftly handled. Without giving too much away the issue of VIP child sex rings rears its ugly head, reminiscent of the allegations that swirled around Marc Dutroux, the Belgium paedophile and serial killer, and now horribly prescient in the UK, with allegations of a Westminster child abuse network. And no, there’s no serial killer in this novel, the murders committed by faceless agents of the state.
All in all this is brilliant novel, full of depth and nuance. I give it five stars.