I’m somewhat a fan of literature set in Italy (as opposed to Italian writers writing about their own country) as in, for example Michael Dibden and Charles Lambert. In fact, my own newly released novel, Gatekeeper, is set partly in Rome, so any book set in the country is likely to interest me.
I’m also a fan of Italian writing, Italo Calvino in particular. So finding a copy of Varesi’s The Dark Valley in my recent haul of books, I set to. My reading was much enhanced by a box of hand-made chocolates – between Christmas and New Year, indulgences are in order!
The first thing to say is that while this is a police procedural, the protagonist Commissario Soneri is on holiday and determined to remain out of the fray of the missing person case that is in full swing when he arrives in Montelupo – the hilly Northern region in which he was born. He just wants to relax, hunt for mushrooms and nostalge, to coin a verb. His girlfriend has been smart enough to opt out of this particular break so, isolated, melancholy and pragmatic, he walks the wooded hills, seeking mushrooms and finding instead an intense focus on the missing man Paride Rodolfi, citified son of the local magnate. In short order the local magnate, Palmiro Rodolfi, is found hanged, and the family business goes belly up. Still Soneri observes rather than engaging and this is his route throughout the novel … distant, discerning and somewhat saddened by everything he discovers. Those discoveries will include, of course, a death. In fact deaths begin to happen quite rapidly and a full scale and literal man-hunt is the high point of the narrative.
Of course Varesi has to keep his protagonist in the thick of things, so a series of incidents occurs, based around a dog that has adopted him rather than remaining with its titular owners, the Rodolfis, one of whom is missing, one dead. Ownership, loyalty and possession are key to this claustrophobic story which reaches back into the fascist era and reveals that heroes have unheroic pasts, whilst most of the villagers seem to have had unrealistic expectations of the Rudolfis and their money making skills.
It’s brooding rather than pacy and deep rather than wide; the stage is all verticals from tall walls to challenging slopes and most of the action takes place whilst Soneri is tramping up or down through dank woodlands and icy ravines. For those who like the melancholic, it’s an interesting read, but fans of light detective fiction will not find the repartee or cosy backstories that characterise Reginald Hill or the gritty speed that is a hallmark of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. It’s an acquired taste, rather like the ‘death trumpets’ that Soneri finds on one of his walks, which are rejected by all the villagers as not being worth eating. While I enjoyed this novel, I would probably have benefited from reading the first book in the series, but as a stand-alone it works well enough and for those who like their detective fiction deep and somewhat morose, it’s quietly satisfying.