November 6, 2009


by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Violetta, Europa Editions, N.Y. 2009, translated by Anthony Shugaar

Review by Anthony Barker

According to the book jacket, ‘Massimo Carlotto is more noir than even the toughest American noir.’ Are we going to take that lying down? No way, JosĂ©!

I hereby certify that Poisonville is not as noir as Pulp Fiction. Not even close. Also this fairly dull witted reviewer solved the ‘whodunnit’ part somewhere around page 60, making the remaining 162 pages an extended anti-climax.

But there are other reasons to read it.

This may be one of those mysteries where the reader is supposed to ‘get-it’ much earlier than the protagonist, and then squirm around waiting for the main character to catch up. Those sorts of mysteries are good for the reader’s ego.

As a cross-cultural experience it is interesting to compare Italian motivation for (literary) murders (family, honor, status, betrayal) versus what American readers accept as plausible.

On almost any three hour flight, this book will be better than the in-flight movie.

Poisonville seems to have been ‘made for TV’. While most of it is written from the point of view of the protagonist, (probably the work of Carlotto, the novel writer) the rest was evidently written for an omniscient camera (perhaps by Videtta, the screenwriter.) Head-hopping is a considered a great sin these days—but once you accept abrupt changes of viewpoint as lawful ‘cinematic cuts’ it is blessedly liberating not to be stuck in the head of the protagonist.

Francesco, a not overly bright Italian lawyer, is about to be married. The morning after his bachelor party he finds his fiancĂ© (also a lawyer) drowned in her bathtub. It’s murder—and there is other unpleasant news. She’d had a lover (her body contains a DNA sample.) She’d also been about to expose crimes involving (a) her employer (b) their corrupt upper-class clients (c) an evil corporate power structure, and (d) diabolical connections to an anti-environmental waste disposal ‘mafiosi’ (actually the Camorra.)

Francesco is the initial suspect, not only because he is the person closest to her, but because his alibi witness denies that they were together at the critical time. His father, justifiably concerned about the DNA sample, makes a sub rosa deal with the prosecutor, whereby that evidence disappears. Other evidence eventually clears the protagonist, and once cleared, Francesco pursues the truth about her murder on his own initiative, sometimes interfering with the official investigation, and sometimes risking his life to discover the connection between his lover’s murder, and the Camorra.
As indicated above, a moderately astute reader will have guessed who the killer is long before Francesco’s penny drops, but discovering the connection between her death and the other story elements is worth the read.

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