Faber & Faber, £16.99, pp309. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Blood on the Altar: In Search of a Serial Killer, By Tobias Jones
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013, and is currently a judge of the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and the Independent Scholastic New Children's Prize 2014.
Friday 09 March 2012
On 12 September 1993, Elisa Claps went to meet a friend at church in a backwater province of southern Italy, and vanished without a trace. She was 16, from a loving family, and her suspected murder captured the attentions of first the Italian, and then the international, press and public.
Her disappearance from the sleepy town of Potenza is the foundation on which Tobias Jones's true-crime story is based. The book begins as she leaves home and ends, 18 years later, when her mummified cadaver is found in the upper vaults of Potenza's church.
This trajectory has its fair share of macabre and unbelievable twists before it reaches it conclusion. If it were fiction, we'd think it fanciful – Danilo Restivo, the suspected murderer, is an oddball who snips off women's hair on buses; his father is the well-connected director of the National Library's local branch who plays "spin the bottle" with young couples; the husband of the magistrate dealing with Elisa's disappearance has connections with the mafia. But the biggest twist - a ritualistic murder and mutilation of a British mother, Heather Barnett, nearly ten years later in Bournemouth, where Restivo comes to live - is one that Jones could never have anticipated when he began his investigations.
The book begins with an air of reflective erudition. Jones gives us somewhat loquacious topographies and cultural histories of the Basilicata region and draws parallels between the inner workings of the investigation - the obfuscation and bungling by police, magistrate and church - with the murky workings of the state itself. He follows the trail of half-truths and conspiracies right up to the top of the pyramid of duplicity upon which Berlusconi's Italy is built. He befriends the Claps family and acquaints himself with the investigation's cast of dubious characters (not least, the priest who goes to a thermal spa on the day Elise disappears and locks up the church) as well as its heroes (an honest priest; a good-looking detective; the tenacious older brother, Gildo, and the indomitable mother, Filomena).
The connection he makes between one unsolved mystery and the state is supported by his keen knowledge of Italy. Jones drew a similar parallel in his travel book, The Dark Heart of Italy, in which he asked: "Why is it that there are so many mysteries in Italy? Why is it that no journalist or historian or judge can ever say what's been going on?" Similar questions are asked here. Yet it is not Jones' "top down" corruption theory that makes this book so riveting but the human dramas: Gildo, with his steely will and quiet sense of tragedy, Filomena, a devout Catholic who is betrayed by the institution to which she has been so faithful, and the creepy Restivo, with his provincially powerful family.
Jones has a detective's eye for faces and physical tics; he gives us a blow-by-blow account of Barnett's court case, with a meticulous understanding of its forensic evidence. And he captures, most poignantly, the Claps family's trauma, heroism and drive to see justice done. As Filomena says: "You have to be brave every day."
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Calum Chambers: Southampton's latest example of Generation X-factor
- 2 Crash victims in car flattened by shipping container emerge with just minor injuries
- 3 Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
- 4 Exclusive: David Cameron’s Big Society in tatters as charity watchdog launches investigation into claims of Government funding misuse
- 5 Joey Barton and Yossi Benayoun become involved in Twitter row over Israel-Gaza conflict
Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor 'wheel on people who have mental health problems' says comedian Jo Brand
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer: First look at Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey
Orange Is The New Black season 3: Pornstache isn't coming back
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage from US parenting groups
Coolio has sold his soul to Pornhub
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains