Book Review: The Deliverance of Evil
by Roberto Constantini
translated from the Italian by N. S. Thompson
When Roberto Constantini’s big, raucously assured debut thriller The Deliverance of Evil opens, its main character Michele Balistreri seems to have it all: he’s young, he’s a newly-minted police captain in Rome, he’s attractive, and he drives a nice car. Even tightly compressed, his life story makes for dramatic reading:
My troubled childhood was spent serving as an altar boy with a priest who couldn’t keep his hands to himself and fighting with the Arab and Italian boys my age. I grew into a lonely, turbulent, and angry adolescent. I devoured Homer, Nietzsche, and the early works of Mussolini. No calculated decisions or compromises: only honor, action, courage. My path was clearly marked: at seventeen, I left behind me the first dead in a Cairo shaken by the Six Days War; at eighteen, I killed my first lion in Tanzania. At nineteen, I was plotting against Gaddafi, who had just taken power. At twenty, I claimed the right to decide on the death penalty for those who were traitors.
He’s assigned to one of Rome’s quietest neighborhoods, and he doesn’t take police work very seriously in any case. He’s far more concerned with smoking, drinking, gambling with his friend Angelo Dioguardi, and most of all, cutting a swath through the female population of the Eternal City:
Any woman, of whatever kind, race, or age, so long as she was good-looking and didn’t waste my time with the usual runaround. I was voracious; I wasn’t looking for friendship, intrigue, or protection. They lasted so little time that I didn’t take the trouble to learn their names. I only needed to know them in the most thorough way possible, something not too difficult for a young good-looking police officer of a certain rank. Hic et nunc was the way for Michele Balistreri; nothing of sin, confession, regret.
In other words, he’s a handsome young boor, and for the long opening section of Constantini’s novel (in the English translation of which N. S. Thompson keeps all the raw, unfinished edges of the original), readers are shown his life but hardly expected to like what they see. In ’82 all of Italy is gearing up for the World Cup finals (in which Italy would famously play and win), and the resultant orgy of parties interests Balistreri far more the the disappearance of one of Dioguardi’s workers, an “awkward, incredibly shy, and very devout Catholic” young woman named Elisa Sordi. Her parents are concerned, however, and when they contact Rome’s powerful, cosmopolitan Cardinal Alessandrini, he becomes concerned as well – leading to inevitable confrontation with the Church-hating young Balistreri, in which the Cardinal tries to be conciliatory:
“Yes, I know you’re very much the layperson and opposed to the Church or perhaps even opposed to religion. Look, I respect justice on earth but I also recognize its tragic errors. In this world, justice is often in the wrong hands.”
And to which Michele replies:
“If we waited for the next life, we’d be living in tears, tormenting ourselves with our sins. When remorse turns to penitence and absolution, it’s only a way of avoiding life.”
The girls turns up dead and tortured, and in a spasm of hasty regret Balistreri arrests the wrong person for the crime. The whole thing becomes a big tangled blot on his professional life, and ironically enough, it leads to years of exactly the kind of “tormenting ourselves with our sins” that Balistreri earlier mocked. He becomes one of those cops who’s haunted by the one case that went badly wrong. Over twenty years pass, and the narrative resumes in 2005 with a very different, much less confident Italy once again gearing up for a starring turn in the World Cup. The Balistreri we encounter now wants nothing more than to hide from the world, not blast his Alfa Romeo down its mean streets:
This part of Rome was a mixture of heaven and hell. For three years he’d been forced to live here in the historic center, which he hated; it looked magical at night, but during the day it was smelly and chaotic. He lived in a building near the ministry of the interior reserved for members of its staff. The small apartment on the third floor overlooked a narrow street crowded with traffic and tourists in a shopping frenzy. Almost every evening he shut himself away with a CD or a good book, ever more rarely with a woman, and he closed the windows on the world outside. He slept little and poorly. Every sound seemed amplified. And he couldn’t take sleeping pills because they interfered with his antidepressants.
But his mental retirement is shattered by the only thing that could shatter it: bodies start showing up that bear striking resemblances to poor Elisa Sordi – and since one of the bodies is Elisa’s mother, in an apparent suicide, a connection seems obvious. Suddenly, Balistreri has a chance to re-visit the case that derailed his life and perhaps thereby find redemption not only for himself, but for the families of all the new victims.
This is very familiar, almost programmatic stuff, but Constantini throws himself into it all with such energy that I was swept along (and one of the twists he’s concocted for the novel’s conclusion was genuinely 3-in-the-morning clever). The Deliverance of Evil, boring title and all, marks the appearance of a formidable new voice in the murder mystery genre.