Wednesday 13 December 2017

Review: The Fatal Touch by Conor Fitzgerald

Bloomsbury, €13.99, Paperback

What characterises this thriller, aside from its setting in Rome, is the fact that as well as having a compelling plotline and being strongly character-driven, it is written by an Irishman, Conor Fitzgerald (pen name of Conor Deane, who is the son of the poet Seamus Deane).

This is Fitzgerald's second novel featuring the main protagonist, Alec Blume, an American who has lived in Rome for years and is now a Commissioner with the Italian Police.

The first Blume book was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and made a big impression in the US.

Although Blume is an outsider and a loner, he is nevertheless respected by his colleagues and subordinates because he understands the Italian system and handles delicate situations with a canny instinct.

Unlike most of the other members of the police force, who are unashamedly chauvinist, he recognises talent when he sees it, and in this new novel he gives Inspector Catarina Mattiola her first opportunity on a murder case.

The pace is established quickly in the first chapter, which ends with the discovery of a dead body on the Piazza De'Renzi, ostensibly a drunk tramp who took a fall.

It emerges that the corpse was, in fact, Henry Treacy, an Irishman who had been living in Rome for years, making his living as an exceptionally talented art forger.

Alec Blume's suspicions are raised when it appears that those higher up in the Carabinieri are anxious for him not to pursue an investigation.

Blume, always the subversive, persuades Catarina to take a big risk and assist him in following up Treacy's death.

At his home, they discover not only the ingredients he used in his forgeries, and a number of paintings, but, more crucially, three notebooks, which appear to be memoirs intended for publication.

They take the notebooks just before the arrival of a senior member of the Carabinieri, the notorious Colonel Farinelli, who confiscates every painting in the house.

Alec's parents happen to have been art historians, and he discovers that more rubbed off than he imagined -- he is very familiar with all the great masters and lesser-known artists too.

Alec and Catarina photocopy the notebooks and each takes home a copy, both soon affected by the poignant lost potential of a considerable artistic talent, corrupted before it was fully formed.

The notebooks also reveal that Colonel Farinelli is inextricably involved in corrupt dealings with artworks and the Mafia. Clearly, if aware of the existence of the notebooks, he could not allow the possibility of their being published, as it would signify the end for him.

The notebooks lead Alec and Catarina to an art gallery which Treacy co-owned with businessman John Nightingale.

There they also meet Manuela, his beautiful receptionist. As Alec delves further, risking not only his job and his life, but those of loyal friends who help him, he discovers clues to a secret treasure.

Italian misogyny, macho posturing, and the subtleties of communication are all essential ingredients in this novel, particularly in the key passive-aggressive scene in which Blume encounters the corpulent Colonel for the first time. Aware that Farinelli has manipulated his subordinates for decades, destroying the lives of anyone who dares to cross his path, Blume is exquisitely aware of the knife-edged risk he is taking in challenging this powerful authority figure.

Perhaps it's because I've recently returned from a week in Rome, where this book is set, that I'm captivated, not only by Commissioner Alec Blume, but by the world he inhabits.

With the deft touch that comes only from an intimate knowledge both of the people and the location, Fitzgerald appears to write effortlessly and with authority about the corruption that permeates the dark heart of his adopted city.

Although less gruesome, this outstanding thriller is reminiscent -- in European setting, journals and artistic detail -- of Robert Wilson's The Blind Man of Seville.

The conclusion is stylish and satisfying, and I'm putting my money on Alec Blume becoming the most popular detective of the coming decade.

Afric McGlinchey won the poetry prize at this year's Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards.

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