Book review: The Dark Valley by Valerio Varesi

The Dark Valley
by Valerio Varesi
translated by Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press/Quercus, 2012 (first published 2005)
Commissario Soneri #2

The titular dark valley is of course metaphorical as well as literal, as is quickly apparent in the second Soneri book. It is Montelupo in Tuscany, the place where Soneri grew up and where he goes to take a couple of weeks respite from his job with the questura. To make sure the reader has not missed the point, Soneri walks in the mountains to look for mushrooms, but the only ones he can find are black chantrelles, known locally as “trumpets of death”.

The first half of the novel is exceedingly slow, as Soneri becomes reacquainted with the villagers he remembers from boyhood and as he tramps around the mountains, which cause the night to fall quickly and early, and which are home to deceiving mists. There are many signs of unease in this long section, which Soneri, determined to keep away from work, avoids – despite the frequent gossip he witnesses among the innkeeper and his clientele, and despite the unnerving shots he hears while on his hikes. Angela, Soneri’s girlfriend, is almost entirely present in this novel only as a voice down the phone. The relationship between these two characters is confrontative without being very comforting; and indeed, Soneri and the villagers fail to gel and are little more than receptacles who witness the unfolding events.

The hints and mysteries come to the fore in the second half of the novel, which is more absorbing, partly because Soneri becomes more compelled to find out about his father, who abruptly left the village at about the time the teenage Soneri also left to complete his education. This personal element brings the novel somewhat to life. In the end, the mystery plot has a satisfying and credible resolution, the details of which I shall not discuss here as one has to read a long way into the book before finding out anything significant, which immediately reveals to the reader the motivation for the crime(s), so I do not want to destroy the pleasure of discovery after such a long preamble.

As with the first book in this series, River of Shadows, there is too much dependence on to-ing and fro-ing to delay the final explanation of the plot. In this case, the to-ing and fro-ing involves Soneri, and later others, hiking back and forth to the mountains to try to find the reclusive “Woodsman”, who is key both to the current plot and to Soneri’s finding out about his father’s past. Rather than increasing the tension or advancing the plot, these events mainly serve to pad out the (quite short) novel until the end.

There are certainly elements to enjoy in this book – most particularly the depiction of rustic life in a tiny village where a dialect is spoken that nobody else understands: where the old ways are giving way to the modern world of business, and old crimes are being superseded by the newer ones of drug dealing and the like. As Soneri, a somewhat harsh and very glum character, says: “When you get down to it, it’s always hard to believe how appalling reality is. It invariably takes you by surprise.”

The Soneri books so far are rather slow-paced, morose and flat, with none of the warmth, vigour and passion of other Italian crime novels I’ve read, such as those by Camilleri or Carofiglio. Here, we are in the territory of people such as the innkeeper, “shackled to a vision of his own ruin”. The atmosphere and sense of menace are well-depicted, as is the lack of comprehension of the older, traditional folk for the attitudes and behaviour of the next generations – but this is not quite enough to make a compelling whole.

I borrowed this book from the library. It is one of the titles eligible for the CWA International Dagger award for 2012.

My review of River of Shadows, the first in this series.

Other reviews of The Dark Valley: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham), The Crime Segments, The Herald Scotland and Italian Mysteries.