Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #198: Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto & Marco Videtta

The corrupt town is traditionally a small one in fiction. It may be a city, it may be a local powerhouse, but it's not the center. The rot may be pervasive and all-encompassing, in the darkest noir, but it's still contained. Telling the same story in a world capital would be too depressing -- too much like the news.

Poisonville, a noir novel by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta, is set in a deeply corrupt city in Italy's booming Northeast, about a decade and a half ago. The city is never named: it can be any one you want it to be, or all of the region collectively. Call it Personville, if you want to be cheeky. (Poisonville as a title is new for the English-language edition; the Italian original was named the more straightforward Nordest. The reference is to Hammett's Red Harvest -- possibly the first major corrupt-town story -- in case you missed it.)

A gorgeous young woman, Giovanna Barovier, is about to be married to rising young lawyer Francesco Visentin. But she's having an affair with another man. She meets him, has sex with him for what she knows will be the last time. Afterward, she tells him that she has to tell everything to her fiance -- and her lover drowns her in a bathtub to keep his secrets hidden.

The wedding, obviously, does not happen. Francesco is devastated -- almost as much because his fiancee was having an affair as because of her death, and maybe even more so because she had dark secrets in her life he didn't know about. Worse for him, he's initially accused of the murder: she was found in her bathtub at home, and his alibi for the time of death is vague. (We know he didn't do it, because we know her lover killed her -- but we don't know who her lover is.)

Carolotto and Videtta roll out the plot from there, with a medium-sized cast of mostly the prosperous and successful elite of this city -- though including Giovanna's disgraced father, who went for jail for burning down his business for the insurance and incidentally killing a few people in the fire. A few, including Giovanna's best friend Carla, are trying to trace and fight the corruption, but most are at least mildly complicit in it.

Francesco's father Antonio and The Contessa -- head of the other most prominent family in town -- are spearheading a semi-secret plan to move the Torrefranchi Foundation, some vague consortium of local businesses, from Italy to Romania, where labor is much cheaper and regulations much laxer. For the time being, someone is dumping toxic waste near the city, which Carla is trying to trace.

This is not a mystery. Francesco is cleared of suspicion in the murder not because he investigates anything, but because his father fixes it. He does snoop around a little with Carla, but that doesn't accomplish much.

It is a noir novel, and so the accumulating pages are devoted to showing, from all sides, just how corrupt this town is and just how deep the rot goes, through nearly all of the characters.

In the end, we learn both the plans for the Foundation and the identity of the murderer/lover -- and both are, as they must be, the worst possible ones. And, because this is a good noir novel, they are related.

This is a very place-particular noir; the authors spend a lot of space talking about how horrible and corrupt the Northeast is in general terms. Noir often has that kind of rhetoric, either from a particular character or the narrative voice, and it often is about the specific place. But, for most of us, Italy's Northeast isn't a place we know much about, or can conceptualize clearly, so it can feel like stridency or monomania. ("OK, we get it -- it's a rotten area full of rotten people.")

It's also entirely a Girl in a Fridge book: Giovanna exists to be beautiful and loved and at the center of mysteries, and has to die on page 20 so a man can get angry and upset and engaged. I enjoyed Poisonville, and it's good at what it does, but I wish it had been Carla's story -- she's an outsider, almost entirely innocent of the Northeast's corruption and not tied to these intertwined families, plus a woman, plus the dead woman's best friend. She has the most reason to want the truth, and the best standing to force it out.

Ah, well. It's futile to mourn the novels that weren't written. This is the one that exists, and it's deeply noir in the best and most unfortunate ways: know that if you decide to read it.

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