River of Shadows, By Valerio Varesi, trans. Joseph Farrell

Suave sleuth makes a brilliant bow
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The Independent Culture

The rain drives down; the river is threatening to burst its banks. A hulking barge ploughs through the turbulent water, shrouded in fog. Hours later, it runs aground – but the bargeman is nowhere to be seen.

The half-remembered opening chapter of a novel by Dickens? No: the river is not the Thames, but a tributary in the Po valley, and this is a curtain-raiser to Valerio Varesi's first Commissario Soneri mystery. Varesi soon proves that he has the measure of his ambitious narrative, which promises to break the metaphorical banks of an overworked genre.

On the same night, the urbane, cigar-smoking Soneri is looking into what appears to be the suicide of a man in Parma. He finds a link with the missing bargeman; they were brothers. What's more, the Tonna brothers share an ignominious past: they were both militiamen for the Fascisti half a century earlier. Soneri is to find that (as the river recedes) death in the present has fingers that reach back into Italy's benighted past.

Crime writers have long cast a cold eye on political realities, with several American novels, for example, finding room to excoriate George W Bush: James Lee Burke allows his disdain full rein. Things are different in Italy, where the country's controversial Prime Minister is only now becoming a presenza scura for such writers as Andrea Camilleri. Varesi is something new: while the corruption at the dark heart of River of Shadows springs from the bitter clash of the partisans and the fascists, the author allows echoes of the iniquities of history to resonate in the present.

Some may regret that his protagonist Soneri, though vividly characterised, is cut from a familiar cloth. He is another Italian copper with haute cuisine instincts (fried polenta with wild boar sauce has him salivating); he has problems with authority figures, encounters with sour pathologists, and laments the semi-obligatory dead wife. But any reservations about such familiar elements are swept away by the sheer panache of Varesi's prose, particularly when so elegantly rendered in the sympathetic translation by Joseph Farrell. The real coups of River of Shadows are twofold: the author's trenchant analysis of his country's ignoble past, married to the narrative acumen of a master storyteller.