In the north-eastern part of Italy, near Venice, lies a small town which is home to some of the oldest and noblest families in the country. Francesco Vitelin, scion of one of these privileged few, is about to marry Giovanna, the daughter of another. Francesco has his own law office, and Giovanna works at the law office of Francesco’s father Antonio. Francesco looks up to his father, and having proved his independence, plans to join his father’s practice after his marriage. He has specialised in corporate law, planning to help promote the consortium of local industries that exports wines and other produce from the region, bringing wealth and enabling cultural growth to preserve the national heritage in an increasingly globalised world.
Right at the start of the novel, the first crack in the idyll happens, and it is seismic. Giovanna is murdered on the night before her wedding. Francesco is enjoying his bachelor’s party at the time, though his friends’ lewd and drunk activities are beginning to pall. He has a fight with Filippo, an old enemy who was Giovanna’s previous lover, then goes home to bed. Next morning, he eventually finds Giovanna’s body and, distraught, reports his discovery to the police.
The facade begins to come down, piece by piece. In this wonderfully economic and black novel, we see events mainly through the eyes of an instinctively trusting and decent man. Slowly we realise that all is not what it seems. Everyone seems to have a secret, and as the investigation continues, this escalates from the small to the all-encompassing, from the personal to the professional. At the same time, the characters are all fully alive, and the plot is beautifully structured as brick upon brick comes out of the shaky edifice of the upper-class, traditionalist miasma that surrounds everything and infiltrates everywhere.
Poisonville is simply a perfect novel: bleak, unsentimental and focused. I loved it. Even though it did not take me long to work out the bare bones of what was going on (based on a helpful prologue), and I soon guessed the identity of the criminal, I enjoyed so much following all the trails and seeing how everything was going to pan out. I found there were plenty of surprises in store that I hadn’t anticipated, and I was really sad to turn the last page.
La Stampa wrote “Whoever begins this book must necessarily finish it. And whoever finishes it will never forget it – it’s a book that haunts one’s memory”. The hell described in Poisonville is compelling because it isn’t “just” a crime novel, and isn’t striving for effect. It is a classic tale, told with apparent simplicity, but with a huge motivation of social justice and standing up for the truth. Because this aim is understated, the book is neither preachy nor shallow, but effective, sad and haunting.
I have not read any novels by Massimo Carlotto before, but have often decided to on the basis of reading reviews at or by Crime Scraps (see here for one example). I am very glad I’ve finally achieved this goal, and shall now seek out other books by the author, a man who spent many years on the run after being falsely accused of murder, and who wrote about his experiences in his novel The Fugitive.
Read other reviews of Poisonville at:
International Noir Fiction (Glenn Harper)
Poisonville at the publisher website (Europa editions).