The Girl with the Crystal Eyes, by Barbara Baraldi, trans. Judith Forshaw

Chills and thrills in Bologna

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Wednesday 02 June 2010 00:00 BST

If Bologna brings to mind sausages and spaghetti, this fast-moving thriller paints a new picture of that ancient city as a chilling network of dark streets through which a serial killer flits. A pool of blood into which a child drops a teddy bear marks the start of a trail of gutted corpses as Inspector Marconi (yes, his antennae are always vibrating) tracks the murderer.

His investigations take him into some louche quarters of this suddenly interesting town. Call me a simple country girl, but I had never previously heard of a "Marilyn" party, where everyone has to wear a blonde wig.

The dead men had something in common – they were all abusive towards women. In addition, they all died with erections. So Marconi and his sidekick Tommasi set out to search for a woman. Marconi has a strange experience when a red-headed girl with extraordinary eyes tells him she has dreamed of deluges of blood. Will her predictions come true, and if so, why?

Marconi concludes that the murderer is a huntress – the men think that they are the hunters, but in fact the woman is planning everything. There are powerful explorations of the minds of two women, both of whom have reason to hate men. Viola, brutalised by her violent, drug-pushing lover, has all day to brood over her wrongs as she waits for him to return to the flat where he keeps her a virtual prisoner. Eva, unhappy child of a sad mother, has few friends and her cat is the only being in whom she confides.

There's another female character: the wealthy and well-connected Giulia who befriends Eva. She may be an innocent member of the upper classes looking for a few thrills, or something much more sinister.

This is an unrestrainedly sexual book, its open eroticism and appreciation of female lusts unimaginable in British or Nordic crime fiction– as is the highly stylish mode of dress favoured by most of the characters, though Tommasi lets the side down by wearing fake Ray-Bans.

Wallander would certainly have heartburn over Marconi's sexual explorations, and Wexford would go running straight home to Dora. The murderer is a vengeful heroine reminiscent of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson's bloated trilogy, but the writing, in Judith Forshaw's smooth translation, is brilliantly polished, pared-down and elegant.

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