He had started in the fascist political police, the OVRA, a secret organization the meaning of whose acronym was never known with certainty. As an “ovrino”, he told me, his job was to tail, to spy on, and to arrest anti-fascists who were plotting against the regime. Later, still as an ovrino, he was to tail, to spy on, and to arrest those fascists who disagreed with fascism’s leader, Benito Mussolini. During the war, his job went back to tailing, spying on, and arresting anti-fascist saboteurs, but toward the end of the war, when part of liberated Italy was under the control of partisan formations fighting alongside the Allies, my strange policeman friend actually became part of the partisan police. As he was good, he told me, he had never done anything particularly brutal and the partisans needed professionals like him to ensure public order and safety. Naturally, his duties included arresting fascists who had stained themselves with criminal acts during the war. Several years later, when, following elections, a regular government was formed in Italy, our policeman became part of the Italian Republic’s police; his job, to tail, to spy on, and to arrest some of those partisans who had been his colleagues and who were now considered dangerous subversives.
If proof were ever needed that truth is stranger than fiction, there it is. Had Lucarelli made De Luca’s career as torturous, he would have been accused of absurdity. As it is, De Luca’s career is grounded in the facts above. The trilogy begins in Carte Blanche during the final days of World War II and the allied advance through Italy. The Damned Season continues in the months immediately following and the third part, Via Delle Oche, is set in Bologna against the backdrop of the 1948 national elections. Commissario De Luca is a talented detective whose tainted background constantly threatens to derail him. Once a fascist, always a fascist, his opponents cry. Never a fascist, responds De Luca. Always politically neutral. “I’m a policeman. It’s my job and I’ll take sides with anyone who let’s me do my job.” His actions bear this out, but is it enough to claim that he never got his hands dirty, never brutalised anyone when his office was so close to the interrogation cells that he could hear the victims’ cries?
De Luca compromises himself in other ways. He is not adverse to involving himself sexually with females closely associated with the crimes he is investigating. And when he wishes to assert himself, he can strop with the best of them. This usually involves him sweeping everything off the nearest table or desk. As a result he is not entirely likeable. Yet his talents as a detective make him a sympathetic character and I worried on his behalf.
Particularly during the second instalment, The Damned Season, when, on the run with false papers in northern Italy, he is recognised by a partisan, turned local policeman, and coerced into helping resolve a particularly brutal case in which a whole family has been massacred. De Luca is on a knife edge throughout. Masquerading as an engineer, his legendary investigatory skills, which he must employ to prevent him being turned over to the Allies, are most likely that which will give him away. The suspense is palpable, even though we know he gets out of this alive, due to there being a third book.
He reappears in that assigned to the vice squad in Bologna in 1948, still dogged by his past. When a man is found dead in one of the city’s brothels, the authorities are quick to explain it as suicide. While the man hanging from a rafter does have a noose around his neck and an overturned stool beneath him, his feet don’t reach the seat when the stool is righted. “Normal enough that a hanged man grows a little longer if he’s left a while,” De Luca quips. “But I’ve never heard of one getting shorter.” True to form De Luca refuses to look the other way even when it becomes apparent that the evidence indicates the involvement of local politicians and the police force. With the elections looming and new agendas to be protected, the question is whether De Luca will get his man before the old agendas catch up with him.
These books are classic noir. Matter of fact, action-packed, with little to no character development, for which we should be grateful as it’s a challenge keeping up with the turbulence of the historical period. For that reason it is important that the books are read in chronological sequence. De Luca’s personal story adds further moral ambiguity and suspense into the usual police procedural mix. When photographs of a black-shirted De Luca come to light, that ambiguity intensifies and the time finally arrives to answer the questions that have been threatening since book 1. An entirely fitting finish to the trilogy. Firstly it is amplifies the air of moral doubt and uncertainty that has pervaded the books and secondly, it leaves this reader wanting more!