Carlo Lucarelli’s “Via delle Oche”

Reviewed by Peter Rozovsky

Image of Carlo Lucarelli’s “Via delle Oche”

If more historical crime fiction were like Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy, I'd probably read more of it than I do now.

What makes Lucarelli's brand different? For one thing, the De Luca books are compact and almost devoid of picturesque period detail. Lucarelli gets at the heart of the scary and chaotic place that was late- and post-Fascist Italy directly, through brief, violent bursts of action, and through the thoughts, words and deeds of one man, police Commissario De Luca.

In Via delle Oche, the final volume in the trilogy, De Luca has surfaced in Bologna after a tangled odyssey through Italy's mid-century law-enforcement apparatus. Following the Anglo-American landing in Sicily in 1943, as Lucarelli notes in a preface, Italy split into Allied and German-occupied halves, with the inevitable terror, confusion and chaos over who was in charge of policing whom. "In Milan alone," he writes, "there were at least sixteen different police forces, from the regular police, the 'Questura,' to the Gestapo, each doing as they pleased and sometimes arresting one another." That world is De Luca's world, and he, good, hard-working and devoted to the truth as he is, has a past that opponents can and do use to his disadvantage when he gets too close to the roots of the death that opens the novel.

The Via delle Oche of the novel's title is a street in Bologna's red-light district, home to a fifth-rate brothel in Italy's then-legal and minutely regulated prostitution industry. A man is found there in the book's opening chapter, hanging by a rope from a beam, an apparent suicide. Grim and smokily romantic, the scene is nonetheless a piece of observational detective work straight out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. De Luca even has his own Watson, though Pugliese goes in more for ominous wisecracks and smiles than did Sherlock Holmes' sidekick.

This being 1948 Italy, with the country's future a seeming toss-up between the Marshall Plan and the Soviet bear, and powerful Italians betting their futures on the outcome of the year's election, the case does not end once De Luca observes that the hanging man must be a murder victim rather than a suicide. Nor does it end when he discovers the identity of the powerful man whose earlier death led to—or, rather, made necessary—the killings of the apparent suicide and of two subsequent victims.

This third volume of the De Luca trilogy (the first two, Carte Blanche and The Damned Season, were published in Italian in 1990 and 1991, Via delle Oche in 1996. English translations appeared in 2006, '07 and '08) is in places slightly harsher and in others more light-hearted than its predecessors. Each chapter, for example, is headed by a series of newspaper headlines, in the manner of old-time American movies. Generally, these headlines reflect three points of view on the hyper-heated election campaign: rightist/nationalist, Communist/anti-clerical, and ironically whimsical. One such series, for example, reads:

"IF THE FRONT WINS, NO FOREIGN INTERVENTION WILL SAVE ITALY."

"CARDINAL LOVITANO, MONSIGNOR ROBERTI, MONSIGNOR PRISELLA IMPLICATED IN YET ANOTHER CURRENCY SCANDAL."

"FIRST RUN OPENING TODAY AT NOSADELLE: THE BOHEMIAN GIRL WITH STAN LAUREL AND OLIVER HARDY."

These set the scene with great economy, at once providing a living history lesson and building the sense of menace essential to good noir. As extravagant as the headlines may be, they are also faithful to the cutthroat partisan spirit of the time. And, of course, they're fun.

The harshness appears in such scenes as De Luca's threatening interrogation of a brothel keeper: "'I'm not a client,' he said. 'I'm here to ask some questions. Then we'll see whether the new girls arrive tomorrow or not.'" If there is such thing as hard-boiled historical crime fiction, Via Della Oche is a fine example.

Its closest crime-fiction relative, though, may be the post-1968 noir of Jean-Patrick Manchette, with its bleak tales of protagonists used and then discarded by powerful forces. (You'll have to read the novel to find out what happens to De Luca. The story does not end when he solves the killings, and its outcome may make readers even more suspicious of political crusades than they are now.)

De Luca's sad, ambiguous fate at the hands of Italy's powerful, whomever they happen to be, and his world, in which political affiliation counts for everything and personal qualities for nothing, are effectively drawn in two ways. What happens to De Luca is not only plausible in the power-jockeying world of post-war Italy. It is also grim, with the sense of defeat and hopelessness that are the essence of noir. That Via delle Oche works as history and as crime fiction may be its most impressive accomplishment. That it works as historical crime fiction is a salutary lesson for any reader who thinks that sub-genre need imply ancient times and costume drama.

Peter Rozovsky writes about international crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders.