By Luigi Guicciardi, translated by Iain Halliday
I don’t mean to start a review with a geography lesson, but as this novel is set in the small, fictitious town of Guiglia, Italy, I was curious to try to locate it, as it seems like a nice place for a holiday. I discover that it is in the north of the country, near Modena and the more famous town of Bologna, in the Appennine mountains. The titular Inspector Cataldo is from Sicily, though many cannot believe this as he is tall, fair and does not speak with an accent. He’s moved far from his southern roots because of his police career, leaving behind his elderly mother, an ex-girlfriend and the opportunity to eat fresh, rather than frozen, fish in his move to the north.
Cataldo is an introspective and self-contained man, quiet and committed to his job. He is called in when the body of Giulio Zoboli is found in his study, shot through the temple. The assumption is that the death is suicide, but Cataldo and his team soon discover that, as his wife Miriam suspects, Zoboli did not die a natural death.
Zoboli was an academic, working on literary analysis and criticism at Bologna University. He was frustrated because his mentor, Professor Luigi Ramondini, has taken his research findings to present at a conference, ostensibly on his behalf. Not only did Zoboli feel that Ramondini would take the credit that belongs to him, but also Zoboli did not have tenure. The Italian system of awarding university appointments via annual concorsi is famously corrupt and nepotistic. Zoboli was dependent on Ramondini for his chance at a permanent position, so did not insist on presenting the work himself, even though it would have greatly improved his chances of a professorship.
As well as this festering argument, a pale stranger had appeared in town a few days before, asking a hotel manager where Zoboli lives. Calling himself Alberto Ferraro, he followed Zoboli for a while, eventually going to his house and revealing himself to be a fellow academic wanting help with his research. Delighted at the prospect of discussing his work with a fellow-specialist, Zoboli agreed to meet Ferraro later that evening, half an hour before the fatal incident. When Miriam returned home from a couple of days away, she found her husband’s body in the study and called the police, in the shape of Inspector Cataldo.
Although the death looks like a suicide, Cataldo has his suspicions as there seems to be no motive. Miriam says that her marriage was happy and that the couple had no money worries despite her husband’s lack of tenure, which for him was more a matter of pride than anything else, for he was a better academic than his mentor. When Cataldo’s suspicions are confirmed, he is not short of suspects. Not only does Ferraro turn out not to be who he seems, but a clue leads Cataldo to investigate a celebratory dinner that Zoboli, Ramondini, Miriam and several other friends attended 18 years before, which took place on the same night as a terrible, apparently unconnected, crime.
I loved this novel, which was written in 1999 but is only just translated and published in England by the small, independent publisher Hersilia Press. I am so pleased that I’ve been able to read this book, which certainly has an element of a Father Brown story and a dash of Hercule Poirot, but is distinctive in its own right. The author delivers on all counts: a tight plot which has a satisfying resolution despite a large number of motives and suspects – and indeed, additional murders; a lovely sense of place; and an appealing protagonist. Cataldo is a far cooler customer than his excitable fictional countryman Salvador Montalbano, but is intriguing in his philosophy of life and in his half-revealed past. According to the publisher’s website, there are three more Inspector Cataldo novels yet to be translated, and I shall be first in the queue to read them when they are. Iain Halliday has done a lovely job with this book, and I hope he will continue to interpret the rest of the series for English-language readers.
I thank the publisher, Hersilia Press, for kindly sending me a copy of this book.
Read another review of this novel at International Noir Fiction (Glenn Harper).
(Photo: countryside near Modena.)