Temporary Perfections

Temporary Perfections
Gianrico Carofiglio. Translated
by Antony Shugaar
Bitter Lemon Press, 249pp, £8.99

Until recently, the southern region of Apulia was often dismissed as the run-down heel of Italy, an undeveloped Spanish-Greek-Italian coastal crossroads of parched landscapes and poverty, its glorious food, wine and architecture known only to hardy adventurers. But under the leadership since 2005 of its charismatic, gay, Berlusconi-busting governor, Nichi Vendola, Apulia has emerged as an attractive, solar-energy-driven destination of choice for green businesses, music festivals and tourism. It even has its own Mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita - smaller than the organised crime outfits of its southern neighbours Sicily and Naples, but lethal nonetheless. And, for nearly a decade Apulia has had its own celebrity crime writer, Gianrico Carofiglio.

Carofiglio came to prominence in the 1990s for his work as an anti-Mafia judge in the regional capital, Bari. He was 40 years old when he invented his fictional alter ego as a distraction from the day job and to write himself out of a mid-life crisis. Although he chooses not to write directly about the Mafia, this lawyer-turned-courtroom-dramatist knows his criminals and the Italian legal system inside out. We still meet the big boys - the drug
dealers and child traffickers - but it is ordinary people and everyday misogyny, racism and fraud that Carofiglio exposes, as his hero Guido Guerrieri trawls through the bookshops and bars of Bari.

Today, Carofiglio is a bestseller and multiple prizewinner in Italy and, increasingly, across the world. Thanks to Bitter Lemon Press in the UK, we can now read all four of his legal thrillers in English. He has been compared with Raymond Chandler and John Grisham, which I imagine he is delighted about, as both he and his protagonist devour American literature.

Guerrieri, nicknamed "Gigi" by a girlfriend, is no swashbuckling Italian macho or passionate social campaigner. He doesn't live with his mother, or even like blood and violence. Rather, he is a lovable fortysomething, deeply neurotic, witty, honest and a brilliant lawyer, a stunning performer in the courtroom who wants nothing more than to enjoy women and Bruce Springsteen and to expose social injustice and corruption, quietly. He is also endearingly flawed: a procrastinator who would rather read novels than go the office, a failure at relationships, riddled with self-doubt, taking on seemingly unwinnable cases.

The narrative of Temporary Perfections centres not only on the hunt for a missing student named Manuela Ferraro and an investigation into illegal drugs, but also on Guerrieri's intense relationship with Manuela's best friend, Caterina. It also takes in his equally intense friendship with the former prostitute Nadia, with whom he discusses the genius of Charles Schulz and Clint Eastwood. Nadia, in what for southern Italy is a very 21st-century touch, runs a gay bar in Bari.

All this is written in the first person, in tight, conversational, American-style prose. The characters are rounded - they have parents, pasts and presents - though we see everything from the hero's perspective. All four Guerrieri novels are about character and psychology: his own and his insight into the minds of others.

And just when you think our hero is pontificating too much, the pace of Temporary Perfections quickens with a flash of inspiration and the whiff of a Sherlock Holmes story. The crime is "solved" at breathtaking speed and with a twist on "the dog that didn't bark". We are left with vivid pictures of Bari, as well as a deeper understanding of the Italian legal process and human nature in general.

Contemporary crime fiction is the most satisfying way to engage with the eternal mysteries of Italian society, politics and history. Sicily has the food-loving Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Then there is the erratic anti-hero Aurelio Zen, as well as Massimo Carlotto's ruthless Giorgio Pellegrini and Donna Leon's home-loving Guido Brunetti, both Venetians - distinctive individuals all, deeply rooted in their respective regional cultures. Each of these characters provides a guide to how Italians live outside Berlusconi-dominated Rome. They rarely succeed in driving out the Mafia, or even in solving crimes, but they do expose the criminals and the suffering they create.

Rosie Goldsmith is a writer and broadcaster

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, New Issue