Carte Blanche – Carlo Lucarelli

28 October 2013
Chapters 1-5…
…of a 10-chapter novella. I don’t read much crime fiction, so I don’t know where this fits into Italian crime fiction in general, or historical crime fiction – set during the dying days of WW2 in this case – in particular. I suspect that in 1990 it was a new departure to have a detective moving uneasily from his work as a commandant in the Fascist military police to what purports to be conventional police work. There are references to Mussolini’s tightening-up of the official policy concerning policing, apparently designed to demonstrate to the approaching Allied forces that it isn’t only the railways that have been running properly in Fascist Italy. But, almost from the start, the detective discovers that despite the propaganda there are still no-go areas.

The detective is De Luca, and he is a driven man. He always feels on the edge of sleep, because he suffers from chronic insomnia. So he never feels hungry, so he drinks on an empty stomach, so he gets heartburn…. The copper who is turning into his side-kick, Pugliese, keeps telling him to relax and enjoy the spaghetti he’s just ordered for him. Hah. This is a first outing for both of them because it’s Lucarelli’s first published fiction, and the new kid on la strada likes to pack a lot into a small space. It opens with a bombing – I don’t know how significant that is going to turn out to be – as De Luca makes his way to investigate the murder that has taken place before Chapter 1. There’s soon another murder, and a death in custody not much later, and between these two the exhausted detective has his erogenous zones brushed against, twice, by one woman and has sex practically forced upon him by another. Meanwhile he has to keep track not only of the suspects but also of his bosses, men who are scrabbling for ways to survive the downfall we know is coming. Phew.

There’s plenty of plot , and it’s made more complicated by the politics. There’s a certain inevitability to his masters’ determination to lead him away from the very suspects his investigations are leading him towards. There aren’t factions – I think it’s De Luca himself who makes the mistake of calling them this – there are ‘wings’, and they are pulling him in opposite directions. The murder victim is a crook who has made enough money to live in a luxury apartment as a morphine dealer, and the suspect his masters are pushing him towards is the promiscuous addict daughter of a Count they don’t like. De Luca has already deduced that she was at the apartment just before the murder, but that doesn’t prove anything.

He is leaning towards a member of the Italian SS who is off-limits to him. (The main clue is from the SS insignia mentioned by the wife of the porter in the apartment block and its red colour, whose significance only comes to him during a snooze following his unexpected shag. His deductive powers don’t seem to be the main point of this story.) His suspicions are hardly allayed when he discovers that the porter, the only one who might shed some light on the matter once his wife has had her skull bashed in, has just died in the very SS headquarters the suspect works at. Pugliese is all for arresting the Count’s daughter – anything for an easy life – but guess what? De Luca just can’t do it. Oh dear.

28 October
Chapters 6-10 – to the end
This book is all about the historical setting. This isn’t surprising, given the author’s background: Carlo Lucarelli, academic researcher, comes to the end of his twenties and wonders how to make the best use of the can of worms he’s opened. In the preface he gives us a version of what led him to fictionalise his findings on policing in Italy during wartime. It led me to wonder how many other people, having decided to use the crime genre to tell an important story about their own society, get hooked into it. Did Lucarelli expect that his career would be in crime fiction?

He takes the genre in interesting directions, and I’m glad I didn’t read the preface before reading the story. There are things in it such as the sixteen different police forces operating in Milan at the time…. If I’d known them before reading the story, I would be at an advantage over poor old De Luca – but I think it’s far better to share his confusion. One of the most engaging things about Carte Blanche is the way the ground constantly shifts, so that the reader is even more uncertain than is usual in crime fiction of who is to be trusted. The whodunit plot, which De Luca proves himself to be rather slow to unravel, is secondary to the growing suspicion that if the Partisans don’t kill him as a fascist, his bosses will kill him for not carrying out their own agenda. His insomnia starts to look like the only sensible response to intolerable, unfathomable uncertainties. (Another thing I’m glad I didn’t know: that De Luca survives to feature in two further stories. There are so many uncertainties in this one that I suspected that Lucarelli might break a cardinal rule of crime fiction and allow his detective to be killed.)

But I’m not telling you the plot. It’s full of red herrings, to the extent that the murderer isn’t actually one of De Luca’s three or four suspects. It’s a character who is presented early on as so insignificant that I didn’t even mention her when I wrote about the first half of the book, and whom De Luca interviews only to find out more about a couple of his suspects at the time. Five pages from the end, De Luca has another of his lightbulb moments. Again this happens in the company of Valeria, the suspect he’d slept with in an earlier chapter and who stirs a memory in him of the red SS flash. (Try to keep up.) This time he even slaps his forehead, crying out what a fool he’s been to point the finger at all the wrong people for nine solid chapters….

I think it’s Pugliese who points out, justifiably enough, that a lot of people wouldn’t have been killed if De Luca had got it right from the start. Instead, his new boss had allowed one of the story’s unreliable witnesses to throw him off the scent, another aspect of this book that I find engaging. This detective is floundering about making fatal mistakes, but given the world he’s living in it’s entirely understandable. A plausible witness, one who would seem to have no motive to lie, actually does lie. A good policeman is shot, apparently by the Partisans… but Pugliese drops a broad hint about why they wouldn’t have dreamt of doing such a thing. And the managerial classes have developed such a habit of creating fictional biographies for themselves as insurance that it has become second nature to them. Even the most rabid anti-Semite is responsible for high-profile rescues of prominent Jews.

What’s a principled copper to do? Arrest the culprit and take her to the station, obviously. This is what De Luca is doing with the hapless maid – for it is she – made pregnant by her womanising morphine dealer boss and who can’t bear his arrogant indifference to the fix she’s in. Yes, reader, it’s a crime of passion, and the snake got what was coming to him… but the law is the law. ‘I can’t let her go, Pugliese. I’m a policeman.’

How is Lucarelli going to sort this one out? How can he establish De Luca be as the most honest cop in town, but divert him from following the rules so obsessively that he goes against natural justice? He sends in the cavalry. ‘Don’t be an idiot, De Luca…. The Allies crossed the River Po this morning, we’re all moving north.’ Lucarelli has spent whole chapters making it absolutely clear that if De Luca stays, he will be shot by the Partisans. So he leaves the girl and gets in the car that is waiting to take him away.

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