Thursday, April 07, 2011


The Po Valley is deluged with rain and the river is about to break the banks spreading out into the floodplain. A huge barge steers erratically down the swollen river, and when it eventually it runs aground there is no one on board.
Commissario Soneri is called to investigate an apparent suicide at the hospital in Parma where an elderly man, 76 year old Decimo Tonna has jumped, or been pushed out of a third floor window.
When Soneri discovers the barge was owned by Anteo Tonna, Decimo's elder brother and both men were involved with the Fascists during the war he goes to the riverbank to investigate the missing bargeman.

River of Shadows is the first in a series featuring Commissario Soneri written by journalist Valerio Varesi, and translated by Joseph Farrell, professor of Italian at the University of Strathclyde. The series has been adapted and is one of Italy's most popular television dramas.

This was a little bit of a curate's egg of a novel as far as I was concerned.
I really enjoyed the wonderful descriptions of the Po River, the sharp political asides, and the way Soneri chats with the bargemen to elicit little snippets of information about past conflicts between the blackshirts and the partizans.
But River of Shadows was a little slow in plot development, and we did not learn enough about Soneri for this reader to become as attached to him as I am to Montalbano, or Brunetti. He has a lawyer girlfriend Angela with a taste for love in dangerous locations, and he possesses a mobile phone with a ringtone that played Verdi. Doesn't everyone in Italy?
But Soneri does not seem to like working with his colleagues, and where Andrea Camilleri would have had Salvo Montalbano drooling over what reads like a superb meal Valerio Varesi only mentions it in passing.

A wager was celebrated like a rite and a fixed menu was prescribed. Culatello as a starter, followed by anolini in brodo and then wild boar with polenta. Gutturnio was a non-negotiable wine.
"So nothing at all came from the post mortem?'

I am one of those readers who resists change, and it takes a lot for me to devote myself to reading a new detective series. Soneri is not much fun, but this series does have a lot of promise with an interesting supporting cast such as his sexy girlfriend lawyer Angela, and the tiresome magistrate Alemanni always talking about taking early retirement.
And when it came to politics and the Po, I found myself warming to the story.

The same water which gives you food to eat also leaves you starving. People move away from the river and then come back to it, and those that live on its banks have no choice.

And therefore in the town a bend in the River Po, communists still faithful to Stalin and hardline Fascists could survive, just as the rosemary could survive between the walls and the embankment.

This novel should remind readers that you can't sweep away history, old grudges survive, especially in those countries that lived for years under autocratic empires, fascism and communism.
Thanks once again to Maxine of Petrona, who gave me the book.

'I mean the new right wing, the shopkeeper's right wing, one which has taken off its black shirt and put on a tie.'


Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

A very good, and fair, review, Norman. I agree with you that this book lacks something - it was hard for me to identify much with the main character, and I felt the plot depended too much on him going back and forth between the two main locations. I liked his journey down the villages of the river and his uncovering of the murky past, though. Blodd Sisters, by Alessandro P(can't remember spelling) is also set partly in the Po Valley but a very different kind of book.

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - Thanks for this excellent review. Like you, I find it hard to "get into" a new series unless something about the characters or the writing truly draws me in. This one sounds interesting, though....

8:46 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Maxine, I agree it lacked something. But luckily thanks to your kind generosity, and my own total lack of self discipline when it comes to book buying I have a full shelf of exciting books to follow up on this one.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Margot. I have noticed that seven out of twelve of the books on my read next shelf are "old friends'.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, this looks good enough to read; I just have to see if my library will carry this book, as my budget is overloaded right now, unless I cut out food or electricity.

Brrrr-that last line about the fascist putting away his uniform and putting on a tie just sent chills down my spine.

5:47 PM  

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