The Devil by Nadia Dalbuono
The Devil is the fifth novel in the Leone Scamarcio series and is a welcome return for one of Italy’s most distinctive and intriguing fictional detectives which is saying something given the competition. Despite a CWA Steel Dagger longlisting and critical praise the Scamarcio novels are still not making it to the big time, which is a literary injustice. Dalbuono is as good as Michael Dibdin, Madeleine Nabb or Donna Leon, maybe more niche, certainly her novels are darker, more intense and stronger on the social critique but they are easily as well written as any of the above. If like me you’re heavily into Italian crime writers the comparisons could be made with the best there too, I have no hesitation in comparing her work to de Giovanni, Carlotto, Lucarelli, and Saviano when it comes to her understanding of the dark heart of Italian society. To date this is a fine series and The Devil carries on in that vein. The opener in 2014, The Few, introduced Scamarcio, the cop with a father in the mafia trying to get out from under the cloud of suspicion that always hangs over him. Given the nature of the cases he’s had to deal with Scamarcio has been forced back on old relationships from time to time, often caught between the police and his family connections – just who the good guys are is not always clear. In the Devil he’s a much more settled character but still an outsider, still edgy, he’s about to become a father and is terrified by the prospect. Scamarcio is a lone wolf, quick to anger and not good with people. This is exemplified in The Devil in the tension between Scamarcio and Inspector General of the Vatican police, Davide Cafaro, who is insinuates himself into the murder investigation because a Cardinal is involved. Of course, Scamarcio is intent on bulldozing his way in as usual.
The priest carried out the exorcism according old book he has in his hand, nothing has changed over the last four centuries. It took the priest and five others to hold the thrashing woman down as Satan refuses to leave her be. Eventually calm is restored, although the woman has no memory of the struggle when she comes round.
Scamarcio’s mood matches that of the city, Rome is grey and wet. Becoming a father scares him, he has doubts about being ready, about Fiammetta being ready, she doesn’t want to know the sex of the child, he thinks it would help them plan if they did, things are a little tense. He’s still smoking and he promised to quit. When his mobile rings he jumps to it to the amusement of his boss, Garramone, he has something to take Scamarcio’s mind of his personal worries, a murder. One that requires delicate handling, which begs the question why Scamarcio is a good choice, because he won’t stop. Cardinal Piero Amato, the Vatican’s chief exorcist performed the exorcism rites on eighteen year old Andrea Borghese only an hour before he was discovered dead, strangled. Amato was the last person to see the boy alive. The Cardinal had the boy in his pastoral care for some time, he carried out weekly exorcisms, this time with three other priests. All of whom believed, as the family did, that the devil possessed the boy which accounted for his behaviour. The crime scene looked peaceful to Scamarcio, undisturbed except for the boy’s body, his father had found him lying there. Scamarcio is deeply sceptical of exorcism and possession but the boy though usually mild mannered turned violent and had fits that could not be explained. Neither doctors, neurologists, not psychologists or psychiatrists could fathom the change in the boy. The parents appear to implicitly trust the Cardinal. Scamarcio doesn’t, he wants to interview him, the Vatican police chief, Cafaro, is less than cooperative. When Scamarcio returns to the Vatican to interview one of the priests who was at the exorcism, father Meinero, he can’t be found. As things hot up a complex web of dark deeds and secrets emerge. Initially there appears to be little to go on, Scamarcio gets into a scrape with the press, but then he make connection between the boy and some very powerful people, Cafaro is forced to admit that Meinero might be involved with a small group of priests involved in nefarious activities and the killing is not over yet…
The Devil is a dark slow burn murder mystery with a satisfying denouement. The novel is rich in setting; Rome, it’s politics, religion, power and corruption. The story is populated with interesting characters but none more so than Scamarcio, a detective who can carry a story. This is an intelligent grounded thriller, the latest in one of the best police procedural series currently being written. If crime writing this good to being overlooked it is criminal.
SCRIBE UK paperback, ISBN 9781911617945, March, £8.99