Blood on the Altar

Blood on the Altar (faber & faber), by Tobias Jones, is undoubtedly the most unusual true crime account I have ever read, and one of the most disturbing.  Jones was an investigative journalist living in Italy when he heard of the case of Elisa Claps, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared after attending church one Sunday morning in her home town of Potenza, deep in the south of the country.  Jones befriended the Claps family; from the outset, they suspected that Danilo Restivo, a strange young man prone to exhibiting an unhealthy interest in certain local women and also, apparently, a stalker of Elisa, had murdered her.  Among Restivo’s unsettling habits was a fetishistic obsession with female hair.  However, his family was more eminent than the Claps family and his father undoubtedly able to influence such local officials as the public prosecutor and others in authority, like the priest in charge of the church where Elisa disappeared.  As a result, although all the evidence pointed towards his guilt, he was not brought to justice.  The evidence itself became obscured by a tissue of lies, evasions and half-truths in which many people, including some of Elisa’s own friends, appeared to be complicit.

Elisa’s brother, Gildo, spent almost twenty years trying to get at the truth of what happened, helped at intervals by Jones.  Eventually, Jones became depressed by the corruption that seemed to be endemic in the region and returned to England to start a new life.  He had been pursuing his new interests for some years when the case of Heather Barnett made the headlines.  She was a seamstress living in Bournemouth and she had been brutally murdered and disfigured.  In her hands were clumps of hair, not all of it belonging to her.  It transpired that Danilo Restivo, who pretended to comfort her children after they discovered her body, was the neighbour who lived opposite her house.  From his window, he could see into her bedroom window.

Eventually the police charged Restivo with Barnett’s murder. While the case was progressing, the remains of Elisa Claps were discovered high in the rafters of the church in Potenza where she had disappeared and Restivo was at last charged with this murder, too.  Jones speculates that, since there was a gap of nine years between the two murders, it is likely that Restivo killed other women in the interim.  In particular, the murder of a young Korean girl in Bournemouth about eighteen months before Heather Barnett’s death shows many similarities to the later crime.  (Another man was found guilty of this murder, but the police have reopened this case recently, following the publication of Jones’ book.)

Like a well-plotted crime novel, Blood on the Altar tells two stories.  The ‘main plot’ recounts the murders and offers a psychological profile of Restivo; the ‘sub-plot’ explores the remote region of Italy where the first crime takes place and tries to explain the collective psyche of its inhabitants.  In the process, Jones gives the reader some evocative descriptions of the Italian countryside and of local customs.  All of this is of relevance both to an understanding of Restivo’s character and to how he managed to evade the law, which in turn allowed him to commit the second murder (and probably others).  However, the approach that Jones has taken has one drawback: it relegates Heather Barnett to a kind of bit-part in the book.  Jones does not engage with her tragedy and that of her family as he engages with the tragedy of Elisa and the Claps family.  This has the effect of making the story a bit lop-sided; however, that is a minor quibble about what is a fascinating, unsettling and beautifully-written book.