On a cold and wintry Roman afternoon, a troubled young man, Andrea Borghese, is found dead in his parents’ apartment. The last people to see him alive were five Roman Catholic priests who had left the Vatican to visit Andrea for a very particular purpose. They were performing an exorcism. Meanwhile, Detective Leone Scamarcio is unravelling. His partner, the beautiful ex-showgirl Fiammetta DiBondi, is expecting their first child, and the baby is due any day. But what kind of world is this in which to raise a child? When his boss, Chief Garramone, calls with the Borghesi case, insisting that Scamarcio is the only man he trusts with the job, Scamarcio accepts the mission as a welcome distraction. However, the case proves far more tangled than Scamarcio had anticipated, and he finds himself in an ever-thickening plot of occult practices, murder, church corruption, government bribery, pharmaceutical dirty dealings, family secrets, and, of course, the mafia. To make things even more complicated, Scamarcio’s old flame, Aurelia, has returned to Rome, and Scamarcio is having trouble thinking straight. As he circles closer to the truth, the danger mounts, and when his new little family comes under threat, Leone Scamarcio has to decide once and for all what he really stands for…
It seems unbelievable that this Italian thriller series has now reached its fifth instalment with the recently published title, The Devil, and what a terrific series it is. Nadia Dalbuono has once again produced a thoroughly satisfying, illuminating and wonderfully atmospheric thriller set in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but one where darkness and corruption lies close beneath the surface…
I am always delighted by how firmly Dalbuono roots us in her chosen location of Rome, with her intuitive depiction of the city of Rome and its inhabitants. Her books are incredibly atmospheric, and her vivid use of description of the buildings and streets of this magical city sing off the page, bringing the city alive in the reader’s consciousness, whether you have visited Rome or are more of an armchair traveller. This is particularly relevant to her descriptions of the small enclave of the Vatican City, ferreting below the opulent surface to bring us closer to this largely hidden community, and is a theme she extends into her exploration of the nefarious workings of this globally powerful, and still largely secretive world.
Focussing on the tragic consequences of a young man’s battle with mental illness, resulting in a series of exorcisms to eradicate the devil that his religious mother thinks lies behind his torment, I can safely say that this is not a subject I have seen addressed in crime fiction before. This central storyline is incredibly powerful, examining the line between blind faith, and as the story progresses, the world of science, and more particularly the damaging role of big pharma. I found it absolutely fascinating from start to finish, and was held rapt by this weird shadowy world of exorcism and religious fervour that some hold with absolute reverence as a divine cure all. This aspect of the story was not only tense and compelling, but also arouses a huge sympathy in the reader for this young man and the travails he experiences, until an ultimately tragic outcome. This storyline also raises an emotive story of forbidden love, and how religion can suppress the happiness of individuals in their choices of who they wish to love, if it conflicts with oppressive religious doctrine.
Although ostensibly a police procedural series, Dalbuono always raises the bar, for not only the reasons above, but by her recurring main protagonist, Detective Leone Scamarcio, whose charisma and darker depths of character are the absolute mainstay of my enjoyment of this series. With his criminal heritage as the son of a once powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia figure subtly balanced with his career as a dedicated detective with a highly moral centre when it comes to the victims of crime he encounters, he is a complicated and intriguing character. As he manages to irritate and annoy the denizens of the Vatican City, forming an at first uncomfortable alliance, with a member of the Vatican’s Gendarmerie Corps, he is not averse to acting wilfully and compulsively. The mantle of maverick cop fits him nicely. I also enjoy the way that Dalbuono balances this tough cop persona with a man so singularly inept in matters of the heart, and with not only the return of a former love, but impending fatherhood around the corner, we see the cracks of insecurity and weak-will in his character too.
Consequently, The Devil only cements further my admiration for these thrillers, with the glorious use of location, a charismatic central character, and always fascinating plots focussing on corruptive forces and dark impulses. and bringing previously unknown things to my attention. I am a huge fan of this extremely adeptly plotted and intelligent crime series, and if you have not yet discovered these stylish and evocative Rome based thrillers I would implore you to seek them out. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to the author and author’s mum for the ARC!)
Nadia Dalbuono has spent the last eighteen years working as a documentary director and consultant for Channel 4, ITV, Discovery, and National Geographic in various countries. The Devil is the fifth book in the Leone Scamarcio series, following The Few, The American, The Hit, and The Extremist. She divides her time between the UK and northern Italy.