I know from the blurb on the back of this crime novel and the short reviews that accompany it that it is one of a series, but – like the anonymous Guardian reviewer who is quoted on the front cover – I’d never come across this author or his work until I found Death in Sardinia in a bookseller’s warehouse just before Christmas. The Guardian reviewer says: ‘A real find… atmospheric, humorous and thought-provoking.’
I agree with all of these adjectives and to them I’d add, ‘highly original’. One of the most appealing things about this novel from my point of view is that it is set in the Italy of the 1960s, in the aftermath of the Fascist régime, when the country was still reeling from the effects of its Second World War defeat. That the author presents Italy from the perspective of a policeman who formerly served as a soldier in a defeated army gives it both depth and substance. Partly because of the background to its setting and partly because the main action in the novel takes place fifty years ago, Vichi is able to create a springboard for some serious – but never over-weighty or didactic – reflections on morality. (For example, Inspector Bordelli recalls an occasion during the war when he and some fellow soldiers came upon an isolated detachment of Americans who were shaving, and decided not to kill them because they were thus rendered defenceless.) The murder investigation that is central to the novel – it is the killing of a very unpleasant debt collector, stabbed in the neck by a pair of scissors – also raises some knotty moral issues, which increase in complexity as Bordelli closes in on the killer.
But above all, it is the glorious cast of characters that makes this novel special. All are originals; some, like Rosa, the ex-whore who is one of Bordelli’s ill-assorted menagerie of friends, are highly eccentric, yet none lacks credibility. Then there is Bordelli himself, a highly-principled, slightly lonely character who doesn’t exactly live for his job yet often ponders on what he will do without it, now that his retirement looms. His repeated invitation that acquaintances should join him for dinner on Christmas Eve gathers poignancy as none of them quite refuses, but – until very late in the day – none of them gives him a firm acceptance, either. He is very susceptible to the charms of the women and girls that he meets during the course of his work, sometimes dangerously so, but he always manages to wrestle down temptation and allow his professionalism to win the day. His solicitude for his dying colleague Baragli particularly arouses the reader’s sympathy.
Three quarters of the way through the book, the narrative temporarily takes on a picaresque style, as several of the characters relate in detail stories that have been of key influence in their lives. Despite the almost Chaucerian vitality and immediacy of these stories, on a first reading they have the annoying effect of stalling the plot, but eventually the relevance of each of them becomes apparent and I’m certain that, if I were to read the book again, I should be less impatient of them and enjoy them to the full for the minor masterpieces that they are.
Death in Sardinia is a crime novel, but it is much more than that. It is a perceptive distillation of the human condition that captures many of its foibles as well as the depravity into which it is capable of sinking and the acts of nobility to which it can sometimes rise. This novel apparently comes third in the Inspector Bordelli sequence; I am now determined to seek out some of its companion works and enjoy them, too.