Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Italy Noir

"The American", Nadia Dalbuono

Italy's an odd place.

It's rightly seen as one of the cradles of civilisation, it was a founding member of the European Union, and it's one of the largest economies in the world. 

Despite all this Italy maintains a feel and reputation of somewhere a lot grittier. Perhaps it's the legacy of the extreme left and right wing politics of the 20th century, what we could see as long shadow of 'the mafia', and the overall ramshackle nature of their companies and politics, but Italy feels profoundly different to much of the rest of established Europe.

I'm minded of talking to an Italian friend after rashly purchasing a used (but still over specified) La Pavoni espresso machine a few years ago; he encouraged me to look after it, because along with the Vespa scooter and the original Fiat 500 it summed up what good Italian engineering was, and properly maintained would persist long after Italy had collapsed under its own contradictions.

It's something you can feel on the ground. Working with the technology companies of Bologna and Modena they will sigh if you say need an NDA signed - that will involve getting 'corporate' involved, and thus nothing will happen. Driving through the dramatic hills on the Umbrian-Tuscan border north of Lake Trasimene you periodically catch glimpses on side roads of exotically garbed women on plastic chairs, familiar perhaps outside Naples or Brindisi, but surprising on the edge of Chiantishire. It should be no surprise that Italy provided a fertile ground for Dibdin, Hewson, and Leon, so in this light is there scope for something new?

Nadia Dalbuono's first Leone Scamarcio novel, 2014's The Few, introduced the suitably complicated Leone Scamarcio and insight into seamy underbelly of Italy. Fusing a sprawling political sex scandal into the rich backdrop of Rome, the Mezzogiorno, and Italy's strange continuing predilection for prison islands it delivered an accomplished police procedural that kept attention throughout.

Scamarcio's return deftly avoids the 'difficult second album' challenge, taking promising raw materials found in The Few and refining it into what is a highly polished political crime thriller. Linking the death of Roberto Calvi, the dark days of Italy in the 1970s and 1980s with the confrontation between the Red Brigades and the Italian far right, The American is reminiscent of Frankenheimer's Year of the Gun. It's full of moral ambiguity, shifting loyalties and definitions of truth, and shadowy arbiters of power, and where at times it teeters on the brink of sounding like "all that conspiracy crap you find on the internet" it remains critically just exactly on the right side of the line.

In exploring the complexities of Cold War Italy, with the Red Brigades, Gladio, and the P2 Masonic Lodge Dalbuono posits how the long tail of the 2008 financial crisis and externally imposed austerity could return Italy to the darkness of 1978 or 1982. This is not however what makes The American a great read. What is most satisfying is how Scamarcio emerges as a compromised, ambiguous, flawed yet charismatic character. The interaction between the cop who wants to be clean, the crumbling edifice of the Italian state, organised crime's long memory, and the stirring influence of international intrigue makes for an absorbing read - and the fact that come the ending perhaps more questions than answers are involved leaves you wanting more - and isn't that always a good thing?

Interest piqued? As part of the blog tour accompanying the launch of The American Scribe Books have made an excerpt available, which you can see here. On that note, do please have look at the next stop on the blog tour for The American, over at Tales from the Reading Room.

Disclosure: review copies of The Few and The American were provided by Scribe Books. The used La Pavoni has been properly maintained and is still making fantastic espresso every morning.

Nadia Dalbuono, an excerpt from "The American"

An excerpt from Nadia Dalbuono's The American.

When Scamarcio left the boss’s office, he found the desk sergeant waiting for him in the entrance to the squad room. ‘You’ve got visitors,’ he said.

He was holding open the swing doors for two tall strangers in dark suits. They both wore silver Aviator sunglasses, and their hair was cropped militarily short. Scamarcio’s instinctive assessment was that they were secret service, and probably the Anglo-Saxon variety — English or American.

He walked over to shake their hands, and motioned them to his desk. There was only one spare chair, so he pulled out another from a neighbouring table. The strangers’ arrival was stirring interest among his colleagues, who also knew a spook when they saw one.

He had expected the two men to remove their sunglasses when they sat down, but for some reason they chose to keep them on.

‘English OK?’ said the one on the left, who had blond hair and deeply pitted skin. The accent was American, but Scamarcio couldn’t pin it to a region.

‘Sure,’ he said, wondering if they already knew that he had spent time in the States.

The one on his right crossed his legs, and Scamarcio spotted a gun strapped to an ankle holster. It looked like a Beretta 92 — maybe their standard issue, if they had one.

‘The body you found under the bridge this morning ...’ continued the man on the left.

‘What about it?’

‘He’s one of ours.’

‘A colleague?’

‘No — a suspect.’

‘You’re fast workers. I only sent the photo to our liaison a few minutes ago.’

The stranger didn’t offer an explanation, so Scamarcio asked, ‘What agency are you from? Do you have cards?’

‘We’re US authorities.’

‘That doesn’t tell me much.’

‘That’s all you need to know.’

That settled it. He would give them the bare minimum, nothing more. They were about to piss all over the place — to mark out their territory, as usual.

Pitted skin continued. ‘The guy you pulled out from under that bridge was a fraudster, responsible for manufacturing millions in counterfeit dollars. It was a major op. We’d been on his tail for some time, but it was only recently that he came to realise it. When he sensed that his time was up, he decided to end his life.’

‘Why come all the way to Rome?’

‘He had family here. We think he wanted to say his goodbyes.’

‘This fraudster have a name?’

‘It’s need-to-know.’

‘I need to know.’

‘We don’t share that assessment.’

Scamarcio took a breath, and bit down on a pencil. He tasted lead in his mouth, and wished he could wash it away, but he didn’t want to get up.

‘Listen, Detective, we’re just trying to do you a favour. We know you flying squad guys have your hands full, so we wanted to spare you the legwork and take this one off your slate. We’ll supply you with all the relevant paperwork so you can dot your I’s, cross your Italian T’s. No point breaking a sweat when someone is happy to clean up for you.’

Scamarcio said nothing for a few moments. ‘You know it’s not that simple. This happened on Italian soil, so I’m obliged to investigate.’

‘You’re not listening, Detective,’ said the guy on the right, whose southern lilt was deep and smooth like a Louisiana whisky. Although his eyes weren’t visible, his terracotta tan and perfect white smile seemed to suggest that he was much better looking than his colleague. ‘All we’re saying is that we can help you sew up your case nice and tight in time for you to head out to the coast for the weekend. You guys still go to the beach in October? — seems warm enough to me.’

Scamarcio said nothing. He wasn’t going to be their foreign stooge they could squeeze any which way they wanted. ‘What paperwork do you have?’ he asked eventually.

‘It will be on your desk by close of play tomorrow, and then you can head down to Amalfi for a nice bit of R and R. That’s what I’d do in your position. Really I would.’

The southerner’s words sounded less like a suggestion and more like a threat this time.

Disclosure: review copies of The Few and The American were provided by Scribe Books. See my thoughts on The American here.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Doing wine the biodynamic way

"Chateau Monty", Monty Waldin

Sometimes a happy accident is just that.

My mother will tell you, and indeed anyone who'll listen, that she struggles with Christmas presents, that she never knows what to get someone, but she does sometimes try, and sometimes she gets it very very right.

I've told my mother about helping a friend with their vine harvest, I've introduced her to more adventurous wine than she's likely to find in M&S, and she's even come to Brockley Market and met the magnificent people at L'Atypique. So she got into her head that wine is something I'm enthusiastic about, and that I'll like the biography of an English bloke trying to make wine in South Western France.

There's no surprise here.

She's Right. I probably will enjoy it.

Initial trepidation that this might be a somewhat sub Year in Provence account of a bumbling rosbif flailing around with the idiosyncrasies of French life are rapidly laid to rest. Chateau Monty is an engaging account of setting up and running a biodynamic vineyard, mixing the homely anecdotes of life in south west France with matter of fact details of what making wine biodynamically involves.

Biodynamics? Well yes, I suppose that does need a bit of explanation. It involves taking principles linking growth with elemental 'forces' connected with the orientation of celestial bodies and energies that can be captured and returned to the soil to help growth. There are times when it comes across as nine parts bollocks. The notion that horn manure is powerful because a cow generates more energy than can be used in its existence, thus it all gets stored in its horn, which can then be transferred to manure stuffed in it and then buried might stretch some people's credibility.

A natural wine, albeit not from Monty Waldin's vineyard.
Leaving aside the skepticism and applying some empirical observation though and there might be something to it. Natural and biodynamic wines can be absolutely fantastic (disclosure, I'm having one now - a marvellous Angevin red from Domaine Mosse) so maybe we should pay attention. There's also something engaging about the way Waldin evangelises about it that makes you want to experiment and see how things might work - after all it doesn't do any harm to plant according to a biodynamic calendar and pay a bit more attention to what sort of chemicals you're sloshing around. If Chateau Monty encourages you to be a bit more creative about what you do with your garden or any piece of land you work, or maybe more realistically drives you to try something slightly more adventurous wine wise than standard supermarket fare then it'll certainly justify the read.

Amusingly I let my vineyard owning friends know that I was reading Chateau Monty. They laughed and said they'd read it too. They'd enjoyed it, found it useful in the context of how they were thinking about wine, and it helped convince them that they could set up a vineyard of their own. They've now got a magnificent vineyard in Kent, and as Woodchurch Wine produce a very good English sparkling wine. For this alone we all should be grateful to Chateau Monty.
Vines inspired by Chateau Monty at Woodchurch Wine.

My response to Chateau Monty hasn't been quite as extreme. I've not decided to jack it all in and start a vineyard, but I have thought about burying a cow horn filled with manure on the allotment and seeing what happens. 

What harm could come from that?