Set in Rome, but featuring an American-born Italian police detective, and written by an Irishman, THE FATAL TOUCH is Conor Fitzgerald’s sequel to last year’s debut, THE DOGS OF ROME, which garnered him comparisons with the late Michael Dibdin, who along with Donna Leon had virtually cornered the market on English-language crime fiction set in Italy until his untimely death.
‘Conor Fitzgerald’, by the way, is a pseudonym for Conor Fitzgerald Deane; the author is the son of poet and academic, Seamus Deane. Intriguingly for a man who has previously translated Joycean academic work, Fitzgerald has given his protagonist the name Blume.
Here Commissario Alec Blume investigates the murky world of art forgery, aided and abetted by his colleague Caterina Mattiola, former policeman Beppe Paolini, the mysterious Colonel Farinelli, and the memoirs left behind by a dead forger, the Irish artist-in-exile Henry Treacy.
Beautifully written, the story proceeds at a stately pace which disguises an exquisitely complex plot, as Blume delicately negotiates the labyrinth that is Roman policing. Fitzgerald has an elegant, spare style that straddles both the literary and crime genres, and the style is perfectly pitched to reflect Blume’s own world-weariness.
Despite his cynicism, however, one of Blume’s chief virtues is his laconic sense of humour, which gives rise to deliciously dry and deadpan observations on virtually every page, most of them at Blume’s own expense.
Blume is a loner, an outsider and a potential alcoholic, but Fitzgerald cleverly reworks the police procedural’s conventions, much as the forger Treacy pays homage to the Old Masters, and makes a distinctive hero of Blume, particularly in terms of his ability to not only adjust to the corruption that is integral to Italian policing, but to employ it on his own terms. This is a particularly clever twist, as the world is fully aware that corruption is endemic to Italian public life, but this is the first time I’ve come across a character proactively employing corruption as a policing tool.
Meanwhile, Treacy’s memoirs provide a secondary narrative strand that is equally compelling, and which neatly feed into the main story despite Treacy’s penchant for baroque and self-serving prose. Treacy’s journals, of which there are extensive excerpts, put me in mind of John Banville’s THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE, had Freddie Montgomery turned to art forgery rather than murder.
The character of Colonel Farinelli is also an intriguing one. A corpulent sybarite, he carries a whiff of cordite wherever he goes. Formerly a powerful policeman, he has long since been shunted out of the corridors of power, due to a murky past in which he was involved, unsuccessfully, in attempting to secure the release of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, who was abducted and subsequently murdered by the Red Brigade in 1978.
All these elements come together in a scintillating novel which offers a compelling snapshot of contemporary Rome, courtesy of a guide, in Alec Blume, who seems set fair to become this generation’s Aurelio Zen. - Declan Burke
Conor Fitzgerald’s THE FATAL TOUCH is published by Bloomsbury.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.