The setting of Tobias Jones’s first novel isn’t obvious to those whose Italian geography is somewhat lacking. Although it’s instantly recognisable as Parma to his family. His mother-in-law is quite indignant as cover picture is located in Modena.
Stylistically it is inspired by American hard-boiled fiction. Interviewed at the recent EIBF, Jones returned again and again to his admiration of Ross MacDonald and his creation, the private investigator, Lew Archer. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that MacDonald’s works often turned on Archer’s unearthing family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels. There, in essence, is a summary of Jones’s The Salati Case.
Castagnetti has an unusual commission. When Signora Salati dies, he is asked to provide evidence that her long lost younger son is actually dead so that her elder son may inherit. Presumed dead isn’t dead enough for inheritance purposes. Nor for those who know more than they wish to be revealed. Even Signora Salati had secrets that are about to surface cause more hurt than she ever could have imagined. Hard-boiled with a soft centre would be an accurate description of the plot which contains real sadness.
Castagnetti is an orphan who has fought his way out of the mean streets of Milan. As he investigates this complex family case, he ponders on the meaning of family … and, because he can’t read situations accurately, he makes mistakes. He’s a thin character, deliberately so says Jones, in the mould of Hammett’s The Thin Man. MacDonald’s Lew Archer was so thin you could hardly see him. While this may be so, it does mean that there are moments when Castagnetti’s actions defy rationality and his violence (there are a couple of instances when he completely overreacts) is incongruous with the personality depicted elsewhere.
Such as Castagnetti, the beekeeper. Jones has given his P.I. his own hobby. For many reasons. 1) He didn’t want anything as cosy as Brunnetti’s love affair with food (Donna Leon). 2) He wanted to avoid the modern tendency of overloading detectives with disabilities. 3) He didn’t want anything that would cause him additional research as a writer. 4) Beekeeping provides an interesting metaphor for the workings of society.
It’s not the only metaphor – the winter fogs of Northern Italy working in the same way as the fogs of London in Dickens’s Bleak House.
You can already see from this that Jones has ambitions for his sleuth and his series. The 2nd novel is on its way. Should have been with the publishers by June but they’re being very understanding. Well, I just want him to hurry up because it sounds more complex than the first. It takes on the tangled subject of Italian politics and Jones has also promised more flesh on Castagnetti’s bones. He said – and this is the author’s own words – that it is better than the first novel. Which means that there’s a mighty treat in store because the first isn’t bad at all!