It's strange reading a book set in Italy when, save the crime aspect of the novel, something similar is happening where I live. Our nightly news broadcasts begin with flood reports of how much the Missouri River is rising, spilling over banks and breaching levees. The situation isn't lessened when we seem to have rainstorms several times a week. Gavins Point Dam is now releasing so much water that the current rate is enough to fill two Olympic size swimming pools every second. Imagine. And it all flows down the Missouri.
In Valerio Varesi's first Commissario Soneri mystery, River of Shadows, days of constant rainfall are threatening to flood the plains of the Po Valley. The opening chapter is action-filled as what appears to be a runaway barge careens down a swollen Po River. Is it being navigated by its owner, Anteo Tonna, or did it break free and simply is following its own course? Worse, did Tonna fall over and lose control of it? It manages to clear several bridges without mishap and the lights flicker on and off giving the men at the local boathouse cause to believe it is indeed being piloted. As the barge makes its perilous way down the Po other boatmen call in its progress on this strange journey before running aground some forty kilometers from its original docking place. No one is found on board.
It's the death of another Tonna, however, that will concern Commissario Soneri. Decimo Tonna, Anteo's older brother has apparently committed suicide by throwing himself out of a hospital window. Well into his 70s Decimo was a strange man. Something of a loner he liked to spend his days at the hospital chatting with the patients. Where some men daily visit their favorite bar, Decimo would visit the sick spending all day there, even leaving when the staff left. There are signs of a scuffle and blood on the broken window, which turns out not to be Decimo's, so Soneri knows this is not a simple suicide but murder. When he discovers Decimo's brother is also missing and is perhaps dead, he realizes there is likely a connection between the two and not just chance at work.
In a community as small as Torricella old resentments die hard. In some cases they don't die at all. During the war there was much rancor between the communists and fascists. Torricella is still something of a stronghold of communist sentiment, and a clue to the oddities of the Tonna brothers may lie in the fact that they were both fascists and collaborated with Mussolini's Republic of Saló. Anteo spends almost all his time on the river in his barge leading a solitary life rarely mixing with anyone in the local community. Decimo fled to Argentina for a number of years after the war before returning home where he spent time in a mental hospital. And now one brother is dead and the other is missing.
River of Shadows is a thoughtful, atmospheric mystery that moves at a leisurely pace, yet is not without certain rewards thanks to the time Varesi takes to tell his story. One of which is beautiful writing and descriptive passages that bring the Po Valley and its inhabitants alive. The Po River is a force to be reckoned with, revealing its secrets or keeping them as it sees fit. It almost takes on a life of its own.
Commissario Soneri is an interesting man, whose personality still feels somewhat enigmatic despite the small details I've gleaned from the story. A policeman for over twenty years he prefers to work alone, though ispettore Juvari, his personal assistant, has a complementary working style. Soneri couldn't be bothered by modern technology, he leaves it all up to Juvari and laments the way the world is changing. If he could figure out how to charge the ringtone on his cell phone he'd be happy to be rid of the opening bars of "Aida", which always seems to surprise him--at least when he remembers to charge the battery and it works. A widower, Soneri doesn't lack female companionship. His partner, Angela, is a no-nonsense lawyer but with a beguiling manner. She has a penchant for amorous encounters made risky by their unorthodox locales. I think there is more to each character than meets the eye.
Not a lot happens in the story really. Soneri spends much time questioning the closed-lipped locals and piecing together the events of the day of the murder and the disappearance of the bargeman. Both seem to have met with bad ends within hours of each other. There's a question of what exactly Anteo was carrying in his barge and a mysterious note that was found in his cabin. Soneri returns time and again to Torricella asking endless questions (and eating endless meals in the local osterias--spalla cotta and Fortanina wine!), until slowly connections are made. This is a crime that reaches back into the distant past and a place where events are not forgotten though secrets are submerged and murky much like the little village which was sunk beneath the waters of the Po so many years ago.
River of Shadows has been shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. Commissario Soneri is quite popular in his native Italy where the books have been dramatized for TV. I wasn't quite sure what I thought while reading this as so much of it felt at a distance, but it's grown on me the more I think about it as I write my post. I'll definitely be looking for his second Commissario Soneri novel, The Dark Valley, which is not out until next winter. Excellent translation by Joseph Farrell by the way.