Article published on September 13, 2018.
Gianrico Carofiglio’s latest novel introduces Maresciallo (Marshal) Pietro Fenoglio of the Apulia Carabinieri. It’s the story of the kidnapping of a young boy amidst a mafia war that wreaked havoc across the region in 1992. This was a dark time for Italy, the novel is bookended by the murders of two top anti-mafia judges, Falcone and Borsellino. Carofiglio was an anti-mafia prosecutor in Apulia at the time, he later a senator in the Italian parliament. He is now pursuing a lifelong passion with his writing. The Cold Summer is reviewed today on BookNoir.
Paul Burke: How well do you think the mafia is portrayed in novels and films and on TV? There has been a tendency for entertainment to glamorise its criminal activities. Of course, writers like Leonardo Sciascia, and many since, have aimed for a more realistic view.
Gianrico Carofiglio: The picture of the mafia that we find in novels and films is often unrealistic. And yes, it’s true, there’s a tendency to give criminals an aura of glamour, almost turning them into heroes. I wrote The Cold Summer for many reasons. One of these reasons was the desire to contradict that distorted, unrealistic and sometimes morally questionable way of talking about the mafia.
PB: As a prosecutor at the heart of the fight against organised crime, how ingrained in society do you think this distorted view of the mafia is? If at all. I am thinking of the belief that they are men of honour, are part of a family, have wealth etc.
GC: There are a lot of myths about that. In the past, in some parts of Italy, there was a twisted sense of shared values between part of the population and the members of the mafia organisations. Today things have changed almost everywhere, and fortunately that idea of the mafioso as a man of honour has been completely de-glamorised. That’s not to say, of course, that there’s no longer a problem of a mafia culture in some regions. The problem can be dealt with through arrests and confiscations but also, and perhaps above all, through education, through civic awareness.
PB: The Sacra Corona Unita, Apulia mafia, was structured with ranks, initiation rights and rules (which of course they broke). Is this an attempt to mimic legal organisations, creating an illusion of normality and self-justification?
GC: I’d say it is. The mafia organisations, with their systems of rules and ranks, have a tendency to replicate legal organisations. This gives a sense of pseudo-legitimacy and strengthens the bonds between the members and the organisation.
PB: Comparisons are made between your work and John Grisham. Personally, I don’t see this, it’s because your novels deal in characters/situations in the legal world. Would you say your work has more in common with writers who explore the psychological nature of crime, it’s about understanding people?
CG: I agree with your opinion. Grisham is great at constructing plots, but isn’t too interested in the psychology of the characters, which for me is the most important subject. What I’m most interested in doing is exploring the borderline between good and evil. A borderline, it’s worth pointing out, which is inside all of us.
PB: I have heard that you like to write very freely, no planning and plotting beyond establishing a conflict and an idea of the outcome. Is that true of The Cold Summer and can you explain a little about why this freedom is important to your writing process please?
GC: That’s not quite true. I mean, there isn’t that total freedom. When I start a novel, I know who the main characters are, I know the starting point – the conflict, let’s say – and I know how the story will end. That’s the most important thing for me, I need it to avoid narrative inconsistencies, to avoid leaving loose ends. Having said that, it’s true that I like to write without an outline, without a rigid plan. That allows me to discover new ideas along the way, it enriches the story and above all the characters.
PB: Your characters often demonstrate a love of books and the arts, theatre, philosophy and opera for example, is this a way of getting something of yourself into your novels?
GC: Partly. But more generally it’s a way of saying who the characters are without having to go into boring descriptions.
PB: The novel is bookended by the murders of anti-mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino, a very dark time for Italy. Why did you chose this frame for your novel?
GC: The novel is inspired by events that actually happened in 1992. I’m not just referring to the murders of Falcone, Borsellino and their bodyguards, which are in the background. In 1992 I was a young prosecutor investigating the mafia, in not very easy circumstances. Many of the things that occur in the book come directly from those investigations and from the people involved in them. The very title of the book comes directly from the code name – “Cold Summer” – of an anti-mafia operation of the time.
PB: The Cold Summer is based on real events that you personally had a role in as a prosecutor, it’s now a couple of decades since then. Was it hard returning to that time and place and relating this fiction inspired by those mafia wars?
GC: No. I waited several years to write this story because I wanted to put a distance between the facts and the fiction. At a certain point, I simply realised that the moment had come.
PB: The Cold Summer is dark and at times bitter sweet, but it’s about a police/judicial operation that is very successful. Was it your intention to show that the law does significantly impact the mafia? Making many arrests and solving crimes.
GC: Precisely. A lot of nonsense is talked about organised crime in Italy and its supposed invincibility. In my country the mafias have been fought with great determination, in many cases they’ve been defeated, in others very much cut down to size. Cosa Nostra controlled Sicily at the beginning of the 90s. Today, its power is hugely reduced and almost all the bosses are in prison. The mafias in Apulia have been almost completely defeated. In other regions, Calabria for example, the situation is still serious, but a lot of progress has been made. In Italy in 1991 there were almost two thousand murders, in 2017 fewer than 350. Organised crime can be fought and defeated, and we’ve demonstrated that.
PB: Fenoglio is a policeman, whereas Guerrieri, in previous novels, was a defence lawyer. How did that different perspective within the law impact on telling the story?
GC: Not very much, I think. They are different characters in many ways, but both believe that systematic doubt is a basic work tool as well as a sound, moral way of dealing with life.
PB: Lopez is an interesting character, his background means he could have made different choices in life, he’s straightforward, rational, logical and articulate but not loyal. This is not what some of the police expect. Do people make assumptions about the kind of person in the mafia?
GC: Yes, but reality is much more complicated than all our speculation.
PB: You use the interrogations and interviews to progress the story, it’s intimate and psychologically revealing. Do you think that people have a need to confess?
GC: Very often, yes. That’s a truth that’s important for any good investigator to understand.
PB: Grimaldi’s Società Nostra is shaken by internal dispute, this enables the police to exploit the developing rift. They are the cause of their own destruction, is it like a Greek tragedy?
GC: I’d never thought of it in those terms, but it strikes me as a very apt comparison.
PB: When Lopez is arrested the prosecutor and the police offer him a deal before they know whether he kidnapped the boy, Damiano. Is this compromise a reality for law enforcement?
GC: I wouldn’t call it compromise. The law allows advantages to those who cooperate. The criminal who confesses all his crimes, reports everything he knows about other people and makes it possible to recover the money he has accumulated by illegal means is protected, has a right to a reduced sentence and is helped to build a new life with his family. These people have been and are vital to defeating organised crime. Without them, we would never have achieved the results I spoke about earlier.
PB: I know that Fenoglio will be coming back for a second novel, which is great news. Will he continue to be part of a fictional reflection of the real history of Apulia bringing us forward in time or a character in a purely fictional tale?
GC: Actually there is a short novel featuring Fenoglio that came out before The Cold Summer. It’s called A Changeable Truth and it’s more of a classic crime story, based on the idea that in an investigation there is often nothing more misleading than what’s obvious, as Conan Doyle said. I may well write another story featuring Fenoglio in the future, but right now I don’t have any specific ideas.
PB: The mafia is changing in some of Italy’s cities; gang members are younger, have less boundaries, behave more brutally and there are new challenges (synthetic drugs, krokodil, immigration, the rise of fascism etc). Is law enforcement equipped to deal with the modern situation?
GC: When it comes to these problems of serious youth crime, I wouldn’t talk about a mafia. This is more of matter of street gangs, which are very dangerous but have no long-term game plan. The law enforcement agencies are perfectly capable of dealing with this phenomenon, and investigating it is much less difficult than investigating real mafia groups.
PB: How do you think Brexit will impact on Italy, in light of the current Italian government, are you optimistic for the future? (Salvini and the anti-European sentiment).
GC: I confess I still hope there’ll be second thoughts, maybe another referendum, and the UK won’t have to leave Europe. In general, I’m optimistic about the future: history moves in a progressive direction, although sometimes we take a step backwards and don’t realise it.
PB: What are you reading at the moment? Is there a book you would recommend to readers?
GC: I’ve just finished reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I thought was a truly remarkable novel. Right now I’m reading a non-fiction book called Factfulness: a book that provides rational, and often surprising, arguments for an intelligently and critically optimistic vision of the future of mankind.
Our thanks to both Gianrico and Paul for this excellent Q&A.
The Cold Summer by Gianrico Carofiglio
Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242030 pbk Sep 2018
Gianrico will be in Britain for public appearances in Bath and London later this month:
Wednesday 19th September at Waterstones in Bath: https://www.waterstones.com/events/gianrico-carofiglio-maestro-of-italian-crime-fiction/bath
Thursday 20th September at the Italian Cultural Institute in London: https://iiclondra.esteri.it/iic_londra/en/gli_eventi/calendario/2018/09/gianrico-carofiglio-in-conversation.html