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Sunday, 28 June 2020

‘A Quiet Death in Italy’ by Tom Benjamin

Published by Constable,
21 May 2020.
ISBN: 978-1-47213-157-7 (PB)

Bologna in Central Italy (Emilia-Romagna) is one of the oldest cities in Italy with roots in the pre-Roman Etruscan period. It was the seat of the first university in Western Europe and throughout the Middle Ages was rivalled only by Paris and Oxford. Consequently it is known as La Dotta (the learned) and also, due to the excellence of its food, as La Grassa (the fat) and finally, originally from the red bricks of which many of its buildings are constructed, but since 1945 more from its politics, as La Rossa (the red).

It is in Bologna that Daniel Leicester has been working as a private investigator. He had originally, back in the United Kingdom where he had met and married his Italian wife Lucia, been an investigative reporter for a UK publication but when that folded the best answer to his situation had seemed to go with his wife and their young daughter Rose to his wife’s home town, Bologna. His intention had been to write a long-commissioned book on North London gang culture, but he had found himself drawn into the private enquiry agency run by his father-in-law, former top policeman, the widowed Comandante Giovanni Faidate. And when, some years later, Daniel’s wife is killed in a cycling accident, he decides to remain, as much for Rose’s sake as his own. And in true Italian fashion he is joined by Lucia’s young brother, the laid-back Jacopo (who deals with the ‘tecky’ stuff), and a cousin, Alba, in charge of the admin. The agency prospers because of the Comandante’s previous high connections which means it gets commissions for matters the official police do not wish to concern themselves with, and also has access to information not available to the general public. Daniel, although grieving desperately for Lucia, knows that he is better here than in the UK where he feels there is nothing for him to go back to. Rose is happy in Bologna and for Daniel that is the main thing. 

Now the Comandante and Daniel are investigating the death of an elderly man, Paolo Solitudine, who has been found drowned in one of the canals which run under the city’s ancient buildings. They have been asked to do this by Marta Finzi, wife of Bologna’s mayor, Carlo Manci; she tells them that Paolo had been her lover and that she is afraid of her husband whose attitude to her has changed markedly. Is that because he has been unfaithful to her and wants to be rid of her? Or could Manci have some other reason such the intention of the town council to evict a group of green activists from some land on which they are squatting where they have set up, in accordance with the best green principles, a farm? Paolo had led the protests against the eviction, and it was in a canal under that land that his body had been found? But is the answer to Paolo’s death that easy, or is it deeper in the past, connected with what were known as the Years of Lead in the 1970s, when various groups of the extreme left and the extreme right created mayhem in Italy with numerous atrocities, most notably the kidnapping and murder of the then Prime Minister Aldo Moro and the bombing of Bologna railway station resulting in numerous fatalities? After all, in their youth, Paolo, Carlo and Marta had been involved in radical leftist activities; it was only later on that their paths had diverged with Carlo and Marta going one way, Paolo another.

I found this book, with its excursions into recent Italian history and its cast of lively yet complex characters, engrossing.

Daniel himself is an interesting and attractive character which, in a series, is an excellent thing.  At the end of the book is a glossary which offers brief explanations of various landmarks in the city, and of some of the events referred to in the text, and other matters. I had not realised, for instance, that spaghetti Bolognese (let alone Spag Bol) is an incorrect description; tagliatelle al ragu is what you should ask for.   Recommended, and I am looking forward to the next one.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Tom Benjamin started off as a reporter covering crime in North London. After a stint on the nationals he joined Scotland Yard as one of its famous spokesmen. He went on to pursue a career in international aid before emigrating to Italy, where he credits his language skills on the time he spent working as a bouncer on the door of a homeless canteen. A Quiet Death in Italy, the first in a series featuring Bologna-based gumshoe Daniel Leicester, was published in ebook by Little, Brown in November 2019, and in paperback in May 2020. Book Two in the series, The Hunting Season, will be published in November 2020.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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