First published in Italy, 1997; first published in translation in the UK, 2003 (Harvill Press/Vintage)
When you’ve just finished reading a 700-page large-format novel, the perfect antidote is a 169-page pocket paperback. Upon recommendation by Norman of Crime Scraps, I therefore embarked on Almost Blue, with the added incentive that it features a female detective – a rare breed in translated Italian crime fiction.
Almost Blue is told from the perspective of three characters. One is a young blind man, Simone, who spends his time alone in his room full of scanners, listening to snatches of conversation across the city of Bologna. Ispettore Grazia Negro is the only woman member of the Unit for the Analysis of Serial Crimes, an Italian equivalent to that staple of crime fiction, the FBI unit VICAP. Grazia and her boss Vittorio are trying to persuade the Questora (police) and judiciary that several murders committed over a period of years are the work of one person, and hence gain their cooperation in their investigation. The third viewpoint is that of a person who suffers intolerably from hearing imaginary bells, hence wears headphones to block out their deafening sound – and who, we come to realise, has many other bizarrely disgusting personal habits.
Grazia is a competent detective who has put together a convincing case that the murders are connected, her breakthrough coming when she realised the precise and strange signature to each slaying. The judge prefers not to believe her, though, mostly because he doesn’t want the population to panic or to assign resources to tracking down the perpetrator. Grazia and two colleagues are therefore left on their own, as Vittorio returns to Rome on unexplained other business.
Much as I wanted to like Grazia, I found it a bit hard at first. She seems more concerned about her period pains than in presenting her serial-killer case, and she is passive about the awful sexism all around her – every male policeman treats her as if she’s a sex object, and her boss persists in constantly calling her “bambina” which is very irritating to read, never mind being actually called. However, once Vittorio has decamped to HQ in Rome and Grazia can pursue her investigation pretty much on her own, she becomes much more likeable as she unearths one witness who can, she thinks, help her identify the killer before he (?) strikes again. Without wishing to give anything away, her character develops in interesting ways during the story to the extent that I was rooting for her by the end.
I really liked this book. Although it’s a violent story, the author has a brisk style so that the reader is not treated with kid gloves nor unnecessarily made to dwell on visceral gore (a book of this length leaves little room for long, descriptive passages). The plot is exciting, and the style of telling the story through the eyes of three characters provides an edgy, unnerving perspective which works very well indeed. I am not surprised that the book received such ecstatic reviews (from the various cover quotes) or that it was shortlisted for the CWA dagger. I shall definitely be reading more by this author.
I thank Kathy and Norman for pointing me to this book: Kathy by asking in a comment to this post whether there are any female Italian detectives yet translated into English; and Norman for providing the answer!
The Complete Review – review of Almost Blue and links to other reviews of it, including two in English at The Telegraph and The Times (both grade the book A).