First Thoughts: Massimo Carlotto’s Cocaine

THREE themed short stories by three acclaimed Italian crime/thriller writers – what could go wrong?


Massimo Carlotto, Gianrico Carofiglio, Giancarlo de Cataldo

MacLehose Press, €22.50; ebook, €9.99

 As it turns out, nothing – the book title (and its cover) may have a superficially lurid appeal, but its portmanteau treatment and the writing therein marks it out as one of the better examples of how a smart publisher can make a potentially risky strategy work.

It’s all about the mixing and matching, of course: the three Italian writers have a pedigree second-to-none when it comes to their chosen areas of expertise.

At the age of 19, Massimo Carlotto was arrested on suspicion of murdering a female student; he was acquitted 18 years later, following 11 court trials, one successful escape from prison and, subsequently, a Presidential Pardon. Carlotto’s story (The Campagna Trail) focuses on archetypal police procedural tropes to drag us in, and while it’s too short to really get into the nitty gritty of drug dealing and internecine gang warfare, the multiple award-winning writer is something of a master at scene-setting and at contextualising the fear that amoral and unscrupulous people can generate.

In a previous life, Gianrico Carofiglio was an anti-Mafia judge, so you could safely say he knows the mindset of the type of person that uses drugs not only as a currency but also as a means to deliberately destroy people’s lives. Such knowledge (coupled with a lyricism and literary bent unusual for the genre) is used brilliantly in The Speed Of The Angel, which reveals in slow build-up the unlikely friendship between a male writer (grappling with creative stumbling blocks) and an enigmatic female (gripped to the past by her damaging, derailing relationship with cocaine).

The story is played out across a sequence of meetings at an out-of-season seaside café, which is presided over by a former acquaintance of the woman’s. Carofiglio (whose 2005 novel, The Past Is A Foreign Country, won the noted Premio Bancarella award) knows the difference between dark and light, and is eloquent enough to draw what connects one to the other in a variety of colours. There’s a deft sensibility at play here, and a carefully constructed ambiguity that for once doesn’t detract from the themes of despair and redemption.

In the third and final story, Giancarlo de Cataldo’s The White Powder Dance, we’re in Breaking Bad territory. The tale of an apparently squeaky-clean white-collar professional getting his hands dirty in the world of international drug cartels, drug mules, undercover drug enforcement officers, high finance transactions, and the inevitable graduation of drug gang members from apprentice to craftsman, is brilliantly told. Cataldo (a judge in the court of Rome, no less, and the author of the acclaimed 2002 novel, Romanzo Criminale, a game changer in terms of Italian crime writing and its reception internationally) also knows the intricacies of his subject matter, and is therefore able to weave varying strands of the story into a cohesive whole that is utterly convincing.

As stand alone pieces, all three work efficiently, and yet in the best tradition of what constitutes good writing and storytelling, there’s an overwhelming sense that there’s a book in each of them.

Just as interesting, perhaps, is what the publishers have done here; MacLehose Press specialise is translating literature and crime fiction into English, and as such showcase here three fine writers that might ordinarily operate under the radar of the casual crime genre reader. And that, as the book title so explicitly references, is something not to be sniffed at.


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