The Cold Summer translated from Italian by Howard Curtis / Summer of Reckoning translated from French by Katherine Gregor

Before becoming a full-time author, Gianrico Carofiglio was a prosecutor specialising in organised crime, then an anti-mafia judge. He has a back catalogue I don’t dare start on (because I’ll never surface). However, I did have his 2019 CWA International Dagger shortlisted novel, The Cold Summer in the TBR, which an interview with @LockdownLitFest prompted me to pick up.

Set against the backdrop of the summer of 1992, which was exceptionally cold in Italy, and saw the assassinations of two prominent anti-mafia judges, Carofiglio’s novel centres around the kidnapping of a young child. Not just any child, but the son of the head of organised crime in city of Bari, Apulia. An exorbitant ransom is demanded and paid. But the child turns up dead. Given that a Mafiosi civil war is raging at the time, the head of the rival faction becomes prime suspect. Swearing his innocence, he decides the best option is to seek police protection. That comes at a cost … he must tell everything or protection and immunity from prosecution will be withdrawn.

Most of the novel takes the form of the confession, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. Asked about the rules he sets for himself in his crime novels, Carofiglio said that they must be perfect from a procedural point-of-view. Anything else is a betrayal of the deal with the readers. On that basis, I have to assume that the interview technique and everything surrounding it is authentic. But, I also suspect that the stories in the confession, of how organised crime gangs operate and assassinate, how their tentacles reach even into the most “innocent” levels of society, and how Mafiosi turn against each other, are based on more than imagination. As well the solution to the intended lightening kidnapping of the child … All in all, a most enlightening read.

Carofiglio, whose latest novel, La Misura del Tiempo (The Measure of Time) is currently in the running for Italy’s most illustrious prize, Il Premio Strega, was downbeat about the importance of literary prizes. They are only a indication of the judges’ tastes, he said. What matters most is the reception by readers.

A case in point is Marion Brunet’s Summer of Reckoning, currently longlisted for the 2020 CWA Crime in Translation Dagger (the renamed International Dagger) which won the 2018 Grand Prix de Literature Policière. To put it bluntly, what were the judges thinking?

Not, I hasten to add, that this is a bad novel. But is it a superlative crime novel?

A village in Southern France, where life in the summer is determined by heat, poverty, boredom and endless repetition. Except that this summer is going to break the mould. Céline, just turned 16 is pregnant, refusing to divulge the father’s identity, and her father, Manuel, is furious. His rage is fuelled, not just by an outraged sense of honour, but by his frustration at years spent grafting on building sites, getting nowhere, and a generous helping of hypocrisy. 1) He was also guilty of getting his teenage girlfriend pregnant 2) He, too, is an immigrant, but he’s hellish resentful of this new wave of immigrants (Arabs, Muslims) getting on better than he did.

Céline’s younger sister, Jo, is not cut from the same cloth as her sister. For a start she’s not as pretty, nor is she promiscuous. But she’s more intelligent, and she’s biding her time, working out how to escape. In the meantime, she has to babysit her sister i.e stop her losing the last vestiges of any reputation she may have. To complete this “happy” nuclear family, there’s Severine, the wife, mother, about to become a grandmother at the tender age of 39. Trying desperately to convince herself that things are “still as hot with Manuel” as at the beginning and that she wouldn’t change a thing.

Céline’s pregnancy is the catalyst for a disaster that has been years in the making, and Brunet is skillful at portraying the simmering tensions, the seediness of these mundane lives. So skillful that when the flashpoint, the crime comes, there’s no surprise. Neither at the perpetrator, nor the victim. (Though perhaps at the violence of it.) Just relief that we got there at last.(Page 150 in a 218 page novel.) This is followed by a police investigation that is perfunctory at best.

So I’m afraid Summer of Reckoning didn’t tick my boxes for crime and mystery. (I even knew the identity of the baby’s father, long before any hints were given.) But it did succeed for me on the sociological level – as gritty and unsatisfying as that reality may be.