The Salati case, By Tobias Jones

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The Independent Culture

Faber has long been a canny operator, as keen to turn an honest commercial penny as to be house publishers of the poetry establishment. In 1962, PD James was brought in to replace their default crime novelist Cyril Hare; more recently, the company lost the stylish Michael Dibdin. So who could fill the void left by his Italy-set thrillers, shoehorning that beautiful country's endemic corruption into persuasive crime narratives?

Tobias Jones's lacerating non-fiction exposé The Dark Heart of Italy set out his stall as anatomist of Berlusconi's compromised nation. But does Jones have the novelistic smarts to parley his knowledge into a detective series? His strategy is to drop a very Chandlerian private eye into an unnamed Italian town (readers may pick up on references to the local ham), and weave a labyrinthine plot for the detective, Castagnetti, to tackle.

There's a secondary debt to another, less heralded giant of the American private eye novel, Ross Macdonald. Castagnetti is hired by a lawyer working for a dead widow's estate to establish if her missing son is alive in order to settle her legacy (those who know Macdonald's The Galton Case may spot a certain homage). Riccardo was a chronic gambler who owed money to unforgiving creditors – and Castagnetti's probings are complicated by the suspicious death of Riccardo's older brother.

So does Faber now have the next Dibdin on their books? Yes and no. Jones is trenchant on the detail of Italianate double-dealing, and his conjuring of the Mediterranean locales is immensely evocative. But where Dibdin's copper, Zen, was a formidably characterised protagonist, Jones has opted for a more generic private eye, with all the sardonic observations we're more used to in LA-set narratives.

Jones may, of course, be husbanding his resources, with a view to broadening Castagnetti out in subsequent books. Readers may need to be patient on this count, but The Salati Case is otherwise a highly promising crime début.

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