An American private eye thriller

2009-09-16 00:00


The Salati Case

Tobias Jones

Faber and Faber

THE fact that this book carries a puff from The Bookseller stating “Jones has created a sleuth to match Aurelio Zen” confirms suspicions that Faber and Faber have commissioned Tobias­ Jones to come up with an Italian­ detective to replace the best-selling Zen series, which ended with the death of their author, Michael Dibdin.

Sadly, I cannot agree with The Bookseller. A pity as, if memory serves, Jones’s two previous books, the non-fiction The Dark Heart of Italy­ and Utopian Dreams, both featured in selections of my best reads of previous years. His Italian book was a superb insider look at the country, written by someone whose love for his adopted home didn’t make him blind to its faults.

Jones’s background should have lent an authenticity to his first work of fiction. That it doesn’t is perhaps because his model is too obviously the American private eye thriller, dressed up here with Italian detail.

Written in a staccato style that never acquires urgency and set in an unnamed city in the Po valley of northern Italy, there’s plenty of fog but little atmosphere.

Narrated in the obligatory first person of the genre, Jones never manages to get under the skin of his hero, Castagnetti, a stereotypical depressive­ loner with some arbitrary character attributes attached — he is given to occasional moments of aggression, while in more benign mood enthuses about his bee-keeping hobby. A nod to Sherlock Holmes?

For the record: an elderly woman has just died. One of her sons went missing 14 years earlier and Castagnetti is hired to prove him dead in order to help settle her estate. What follows is a plot that could have been lifted straight from Ross MacDonald. Coincidentally, in a recent article Jones made a good case for MacDonald being declared the real heir to Raymond Chandler. Sadly, Jones is not heir to Dibdin.

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