While Carlo Lucarelli’s detective novel Carte Blanche includes plenty of standard genre devices, it’s unlikely to turn up in the excellent ‘do it yourself giallo generator‘ (via Detectives without borders). For one thing its title is too short, and doesn’t contain an animal (not that the inclusion of an animal in the title necessarily makes for a cliched novel, see Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciasia, or Camilleri’s The Terracotta Dog).
In fact Lucarelli shares at least one thing with these grand masters of Italian crime-fiction – and that’s a healthy disinterest with the actual crime itself. For all three, the crimes that start their books tend to be MacGuffins. What Lucarelli is concerned with in this short, well-paced novel – the first of a detective trilogy -is the relationship between society, law & order, and those that enforce it.
Sciasia’s detective in Day of the Owl, for example, finds himself and his investigation strangely abstracted from the society around him. A Northern detective investigating a mafia murder in a small Sicilian town, he finds himself with a relatively obvious crime but lacks the one thing every good crime novel needs – a witness. Despite the fact that the murder occurs in a square full of people. Foregoing the traditional battle of wits between detective and criminal, Sciasia’s novel was innovative and subversive as a result.
Lucarelli is from Northern Italy, and as such, unlike Sciasia and Camilleri, can easily afford to avoid the stereotyped theme of the mafia. He’s no less interested, though, in the context of crime, and chooses perhaps the most controversial area of Italian history as his backdrop. The murder at the start of the novel occurs in the dying days of the rump republic of Salo, created by retreating fascists in 1943 and ruled by Mussolini with the aid of the Nazis. The allies are on the doorstep, and a leading member of the party has been murdered.
There, straight away, you have big questions posed. Are all murders equal, and equally important to investigate. The decision to investigate the murder is a political one, to show that law and order still exists, when patently it doesn’t.
Throw into the mix a detective that has, in the immediate past, served as part of the Political Police, and you have a powerful novel that is well aware of its genre, and also willing to subvert it. De Luca as an investigator has some of the characterstics expected of every hard-bolied detective from Dashiel Hammet’s Sam Spade through to Michael Chabon’s recent hero Meyer Landsman. He’s got issues with women, drink, and trouble sleeping. But while Chandleresque heroes have been morally ambiguous, few have a recent past as a Fascist interogator as the stimulus for their sleepless nights.
Lucarelli’s book, it seems to me, is the one of the best possible responses to Raymond Chandler’s famous criticism of the murder novel:
The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction