Fitzgerald, Conor - 'The Fatal Touch'
Following on from the first book THE DOGS OF ROME, in this outing, Commissioner Blume is called to the scene of a possible murder, and takes his new female assistant, Caterina Mattiola, with him to investigate. An elderly man has been found dead in a square and already identified as an English tramp by a junior police officer, Rospo. It seems that the man had been staggering back home after a drunken night out, and had tripped and fatally injured himself by banging his head on a stone as he fell, perhaps then dying of exposure. Even so, the death has to be investigated to make sure there was no foul play.
It quickly turns out that the dead man is not really a tramp, although he is English. His name is Henry Treacy and he is a painter, or more accurately a forger. Given his background (his parents were art historians), Blume realises that he knows the name. To rule out possible murder, Blume and Caterina search his house, where they find many paintings and sketches, in various stages of preparation, and, amongst his papers and books, three foolscap notebooks. One of these appears to be a manual for painters on how to age paper, and so on (perhaps a manual for forgers?) but the other two appear to be some sort of biography. Blume decides to take all of them with him to read later. And this turns out to be a crucial decision, as several people appear to be very interested in the notebooks and their content.
Next they visit the gallery where Treacy and his partner, John Nightingale, sold paintings. The receptionist, a young woman called Manuela Ludovisi, is shocked by the news of Treacy's death, and yet seems to be hiding something. Just as they finish looking around the gallery, the Carabinieri turn up, with the investigating magistrate Franco Buoncompagno. Franco tells Blume that he has assigned an expert, Colonel Orazio Farinelli, to the case, and Blume's services are no longer required.
Blume does not give up gracefully. The sudden invasion of the Carabinieri puzzles him, as does the removal of all the paintings and so on from Treacy's house. What are they looking for? Why does the Carabinieri need to become involved? Colonel Farinelli, a very fat man, with regular eating habits, is an old hand in tracking down forgers and art thieves, and seems to have known Treacy and Nightingale in an earlier existence. But this still leaves a lot unexplained. Why are they so interested in the notebooks? Is there some key fact hidden within them that others are keen to keep hidden? Was that why Treacy was killed? Is it dangerous for Blume and Caterina to be in possession of them?
Blume becomes obsessed by the case, and to almost lose his head over it, while Caterina, a useful foil to Blume, is much more sensible. While she might be new to investigating murder, she is very quick to pick up on discrepancies, and to find slender leads to take the investigation forward. Treacy's life and loves are detailed in extracts from the notebooks and digging into his background start to reveal a few clues. Art buffs might also be interested in the various discussions and arguments around art and forgery. And meanwhile, there are quite a few side plots to the book, departmental politics, and so on.
Perhaps partly because the main character, Blume, is not Italian, but originally American, this book could be set anywhere in the world, and, to me at least, it lacked the flavour of Italy. Blume is a loner, both his parents are dead, and the contents of his fridge could be the same as many a 'loner' type of detective anywhere in the world. His background in art history helps him solve this case, but his Italian existence seems almost superfluous. However, this quibble aside, overall it's a well-written, interesting book that I enjoyed reading, and I'll be looking out for the next one in the series.
Read another review of THE FATAL TOUCH.
Michelle Peckham, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.