A Foray into Italian Crime Fiction: Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness


A couple of months ago, when I tweeted a link to an article in the Observer that heralded “a new wave of Italian crime writers,” I quickly received a flurry of replies insisting that, of the writers mentioned therein, Gianrico Carofiglio was the one whose work I must sample without delay. One of my correspondents went so far as to dub Guido Guerrieri, the character at the centre of Carofiglio’s series of legal thrillers, “an Italian Philip Marlowe.”

Intrigued as I was by this description, it initially struck me as unlikely, given how thoroughly a product of 1930s and 40s Los Angeles Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe seems to me to be. But even if Marlowe is rooted in his time and place, noir certainly travels. The success of Akashic Books’ marvelous noir anthologies which serve up hardboiled crime stories from every corner of the globe amply demonstrates that point. It was undoubtedly the noir quality of Carofiglio’s books which my correspondent was lauding and, having now read Involuntary Witness, the first book featuring world-weary criminal defense lawyer Guido Guerrieri, I can echo the recommendation of him as a most intriguing noir antihero.

At the beginning of the book, Guerrieri’s wife leaves him and, despite the fact that he hadn’t seemed particularly invested in his marriage, this provokes something of a breakdown. It’s an existential crisis. Guerrieri hasn’t lost his life’s purpose so much as the illusion that he had a purpose in life. Work provides no counter-balance to his unraveling personal life for, there too, he realizes he has long been deluding himself. He had not become a lawyer out of a passion for justice as he had sometimes tried to convince himself. Rather, he “had become a lawyer by sheer chance, because [he] had found nothing better to do or wasn’t up to looking for it.” He had just been marking time in practice, “waiting for [his] ideas to clarify.” His wife’s departure brings a now unwelcome clarity: “Then the lid blew off and from the pan emerged a lot of things I had never imagined and didn’t want to see. That no one would want to see.”

But in the end, it is his work as a lawyer that brings him back to himself and into the world, when he is engaged to defend Abdou Thiam, a 31-year-old Senegalese pedlar who has been charged with the murder of a 9-year-old Italian boy. Thiam had been seen speaking to the boy on the beach on a number of occasions, and has been found to have a photo of him as well as some children’s books among his possessions. A bar owner has said that he witnessed Thiam walking towards the boy’s grandparents’ home on the day in question, and one of his fellow pedlars has said that he saw Thiam washing his car the day after. This tissue of circumstantial evidence, through the lens of the racism of witnesses, police, lawyers, and judges, is thought to add up to an airtight case. Guerrieri has no faith in his capacity to counter it, and initially advises Thiam to opt for “the shortened procedure” which would rule out an acquittal but perhaps lead to something less than a life sentence. But Thiam protests his innocence and wants to fight for an acquittal. Guerrieri’s growing belief in and sense of responsibility to his client, and the challenge of the trial gradually bring him back to life.

This is not a mystery novel. No attempt is made to get to the bottom of the question of who committed the murder. All of the suspense relates to the outcome of the trial. Following the process from beginning to end offers some fascinating glimpses into the Italian legal system. (The author served for many years as an anti-mafia prosecutor in Bari, the same southern Italian city in which the novel is set, so I’m confident that the depiction of the operation of Italian criminal law is an accurate one.) One facet of the novel that I particularly appreciated that Carofiglio has in common with some of my favourite Scandanavian crime writers is that he eschews the Hollywood version in favour of what seems a more realistic portrayal of the progress of a case through the justice system, adeptly conveying its plodding pace and bureaucratic nature without thereby producing a plodding read.

I was quickly caught up in Guerrieri’s life, and in Thiam’s fate, and found Involuntary Witness overall to be an always interesting, sometimes riveting, and ultimately very satisfying read. Carofiglio has written four novels featuring Guerrieri as the central character, three of which have so far been published in English translation, with the final one due out later this year. I am very much looking forward to continuing on to read the rest.

2 comments on “A Foray into Italian Crime Fiction: Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness

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