Pegasus Books, 464 pages, $25 (c2012) (Translated by Stephen Sartarelli)
Marco Vichi has set this book in 1965 and has done a fabulous job of introducing elements from that era, Italian style. There are two (or three or four, depending on your point of view) separate stories for a reader’s delectation.
The main story involves Inspector Bordelli, with all his faults and glory. The inspector travels Florence’s back alleys and country tracks to solve the murder of a brutal loan shark. In the process, we meet his friends, not all of whom are totally on the right side of the law. They all mingle, sometimes quite congenially. For instance, Botta, a minor criminal who has spent time in prisons all over the place, is an excellent and picky cook, and a good friend of Bordelli. He is charged with producing the Christmas Eve feast for Bordelli and other friends. Sometimes reading “Death in Sardinia” was like mixing “Babette’s Feast” with poliziotteschi. But it worked!
The secondary story involves one of Bordelli’s fellow detectives, the young Piras, who has gone home to Sardinia to recuperate from an injury suffered in the line of duty. Christmas in Sardinia in 1965 has a small-town charm. Because not everyone has a television set, neighbors join Piras’ parents to watch theirs, reinforcing the bonds of their tight community. The brother of a neighbor, a country farmer, has been found dead in his living room, a probable victim of suicide. Piras suspects something fishy, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. There are 464 pages that Piras shares with Bordelli, so it’s okay that both stories are drawn out to include personal details about the two heroes.
Vichi excels in providing the realistic (and often humorous) details of the detectives’ lives. For instance, Piras has a girlfriend, Sonia, and he talks with her frequently by telephone. He doesn’t wish to discuss her with his parents, especially his mother. She employs not-so-discreet subterfuge to find out more about the girlfriend. Piras is “tricked” into revealing his girlfriend’s name is “Francesca.” Piras’ mother is happy, and Piras is happy to have successfully concealed information about Sonia.
Bordelli has an eccentric and vivacious girlfriend, the prostitute Rosa. In his mid-fifties, Bordelli regrets many past relationships and missed opportunities. He treasures Rosa but they are not moving towards marriage, and that suits them both. He was a young man during WWII and scenes from that horrible time haunt him almost daily. American soldiers were able to come home to an America physically unscathed by the bombs of war, but Bordelli and his countrypeople had to live with physical and political reconstruction. Enemies needed to be forgiven in order for Italy to move forward. Vichi writes a moving narration when telling about those times and expediencies.
“Death in Sardinia” has a richness and color that exceeds the basic level needed to tell the crime stories. In the end, will Bordelli do what is right according to the law or according to his moral lights?
P.S. I recently read a book in which the author said that when a person commits suicide with a gun, it is impossible to hold on to the gun. In the Sardinian part of the story, the dead farmer is found clutching the gun. I thought, aha!, is that the trick? But no, that wasn’t a part of the story.