Finding out what actually happened is usually considered a good thing. In most mysteries ascertaining who did it and bringing the culprit to justice is the whole point. Hercule Poirot agitates his little grey cells, Sherlock Holmes applies ice-cold logic and the truth is ultimately revealed. Case closed.
But for some fictional detectives things aren’t that easy. Consider the plight of Commissario De Luca in Carlo Lucarelli’s excellent trilogy of Italian crime novels. De Luca is devoted to finding the truth. While in more stable times this might be admirable, in the chaotic and morally dubious world through which he navigates it is quite literally deadly.
In Carte Blanche, De Luca is a homicide detective in what is left of the crumbling fascist state in Northern Italy during the end stages of World War II. With the Allies advancing ever closer and the partisans picking off those deemed to be collaborators, De Luca is charged with finding the murderer of Reinhard, a drug dealer with many influential and dangerous connections. Despite his strong desire to survive, he can’t resist trying to find the culprit.
The Damned Season finds De Luca in the chaos surrounding recently liberated Italy. He has fled to the countryside, with forged papers to hide his identity, but is picked up by a local partisan police officer, Leonardi, to help in the investigation of a murdered family. Leonardi knows full well that De Luca has a questionable background, but needs his skills. De Luca is once again torn between the practicalities of saving his skin and his strong to desire to find out what happened.
The final installment, Via Delle Oche, has De Luca resurfacing in Bologna a few years later. He has been appointed to the police force, despite his murky past, but is now in the lowly vice squad. When a suicide in a local brothel looks fishy, De Luca cannot let it go. This not only ruffles the feathers of the homicide squad but has far-reaching and unintended consequences.
All three novels are short, barely over a hundred pages, and written in a direct noir style with the facts being of utmost importance. These facts morph, however, and add to the morally ambiguous tone. De Luca’s main flaw is his dogged devotion to the truth as he continually tells himself that he is just a policeman doing his job.
In addition to offering a fascinating peek into Italian culture and politics, it is interesting to see how an Italian author applies some of the classic detective tropes. Most fictional detectives have a character trait that sets them apart from the mainstream. Comissario De Luca has no appetite. While his colleagues go on and on about the coffee or the pasta, he is only concerned about the case. Truly an odd duck indeed.
If you like your fictional detectives conflicted and want to explore a different world, definitely check out this series. Just don’t expect any recipes.