In 1929, a year before his classic The Maltese Falcon was published, Dashiell Hammett began his debut novel Red Harvest with these two lines: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.” The voice was Hammett’s nameless hero-detective as he took on corruption in Personville, narrating with lines like, “Reno called him a dirty fish-eater and shot him four times in the face and body.” The novel ends with bad guys dead and hope for the town. In American publishing (and later, in so much of the culture), the book’s terse prose and raw violence helped establish a new genre, and Hammett’s reputation.
Now, eighty years later, publisher Europa Editions tips their cap to Hammett with their choice of title for Poisonville, the English version of popular Italian author Massimo Carlotto’s latest Mediterranean noir. It’s a slightly misleading reference, since Carlotto’s campy yet enjoyable story about murder, globalization and “ecomafia” crimes in Italy is a high-society noir. Without Hammett’s gory streetwise pulp, the catchy title doesn’t quite suit what Carlotto has delivered. In this fine English translation by Antony Shugaar, Carlotto and co-author Marco Videtta expand on Hammett’s good-town-gone-bad template. Unlike its predecessor, in which the rotten city of Personville needed purging, Poisonville uses a single murder to illustrate the ruin of an entire region of Italy, the Northeast (which was also the book’s Italian title, Nordest, when first published in 2005).
The area is run by several wealthy families who dominate politics and business with some underground help from the Camorra, the local crime syndicate unrelated to the Sicilian mafia. With narrative purpose, Carlotto includes in this mix an implausibly naïve young lawyer named Francesco Visentin, heir to the second most powerful family in another unnamed Northeastern city. A born romantic, Francesco is engaged to an ambitious lawyer from a less-wealthy family named Giovanna Barovier. Her murder by drowning in a bath tub sparks the action, in a scene described with precision that hints at the killer’s identity: “She felt a sharp pain, her heel slamming against the edge of the tub. Then nothing: her eyes opened on darkness. The last few little bubbles. And the grieving moan of the man who had put an end to her life.”
In Hammett’s novels, people are basically either worthless scum or flawed heroes. Not so in Poisonville. No character is heroic. There is none of that mordant wit; there is no code of honor, no master detective as in Carlotto’s “Alligator” detective series. There’s no evil kingpin — just conglomerates and bureaucrats. The world of The Godfather is nowhere to be found: here, “change” and time are the villains: “For years, criminal cultures from Eastern Europe and the third world had established a local presence; in fact, Italian organized crime was only a fond memory of aging police-beat reporters.”
As Francesco hunts for Giovanna’s killer, his father—a lawyer and mogul—makes hidden moves with the family empire. The novel’s short chapters focus indirectly on Francesco, telling the story through about a dozen other characters’ perspectives. This technique, with only Francesco narrating in first-person and the rest of the narration in the third-person—a useful and unique device—allows readers to realize the true scope of Northeast corruption long before the grieving fiancé does.
It is also clear, from very early on in the book, who killed Giovanna. The trope genre elements—a long-lost relative who resurfaces, the bored cops and slimy reporters, a hobo who knows too much, red herrings surrounding the real killer—serve to entertain well enough and move the plot forward, but this is a noir tale with a broader mission: to generate some international publicity for real-life corruption in Italy. Carlotto’s goal is to show how native Italians are as culpable as the Chinese investors and Romanian interests are for Italy’s modern troubles.
In this context, Francesco is more of a tour guide than a sleuth. A wise friend shows him an illegal waste dump, a joint Camorra-Romanian operation, in toxic countryside the locals call “the land of fires.” There “the color of the smoke indicates the nature of the filth they are burning. Black: plastic wastes. Red: phosphorous substances. And the smoke down there is light blue because of the concentration of chromium.” Carlotto depicts these “ecomafia” crimes as desperate measures in a losing battle against Chinese business interests throttling the region’s prosperity (a situation Italian reporter Roberto Saviano covered in his book about the Camorra, titled Gomorrah.) Francesco learns that all the families are abandoning ship, leaving Italy polluted and spoiled, its workers jobless. “We’re all packing our bags,” a rich friend says. “We’re heading for Romania. Fuck the Chinese, and fuck the tax collectors.”
He soldiers on pitifully, searching for greater meaning in Giovanna’s death: “Giovanna seems more and more like a ghost imprisoned by a spell, who needs for her murderer to be punished before it can find peace.” Meanwhile, the reader already knows exactly whodunit and why, and gets to enjoy the unique charms of a genre crossing cultures: characters quaff grappa instead of bourbon; they drive Ferraris instead of Fords; poisoned land produces “mozzarella with dioxin;” and the fresh milk in cappuccinos no longer tastes slightly of hay, because the farms are ruined.
Shugaar’s translation is a cool rendering of Carlotto’s original, complete with a buoyant cadence to the dark prose. The novel’s few British rather than American terms never interfere with the quick pace of the story, as in this scene, where a minor character named Babacar Ngoup is attacked by xenophobic locals:
On either side of the car, blurry shadows were moving toward him, like so many zombies. They did not seem to be walking on the ground.
Babacar stumbled and fell backward, landing on the edge of the sidewalk in a seated position. He could feel the wet pavement through the cloth of his trousers. He immediately tried to get up, but something hit him on the ear. He fell back to the ground, stunned. The zombies shouted something he couldn’t understand. The doors of the tall automobile swung open, and two more shadows got out.
“Arretez,” he yelled, but the pack had caught his scent, the scent of blood.
He saw one of the shadows that had stepped out of the vehicle raise a weirdly long arm.
He heard the shadow say, “Ciao, brother.”
In Hammett’s story, the hero cleans up Personville by offing a few thugs. That won’t help the Northeast of Italy though. It’s a lost cause to Carlotto; his only solution is to leave like the rest. As one character does just that, he wishes Italy’s troubles on someone else, hoping that one day the pendulum of industrial exploitation and its consequences will swing back: “Maybe, who could say, the Northeast would become a land of farmers again, and Romania would become an industrial center infested by poison gases, with cities teeming with Italian immigrants.”
Matthew Jakubowski writes about books regularly for The Quarterly Conversation and The Philadelphia City Paper, and his work is forthcoming in Rain Taxi Review of Books. His introduction to the English translation of Jerzy Pilch’s novel A Thousand Peaceful Cities will be published in July by Open Letter Books. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and recently completed his second novel.