To paraphrase an old Mae West tune we don’t hear enough anymore, I like a mystery writer who takes his time. Though Kingsley Amis once insisted that he wanted to read only books that began “A shot rang out!,” the renowned literary Brit might have made an exception for Gianrico Carofiglio. The author of the Guido Guerrieri legal thrillers — “Temporary Perfections” is the fourth — is as exacting, contemplative and sometimes downright poky as any crime writer I can think of. Yet when the Italian defense lawyer isn’t doing something, he is thinking, and what goes on in his doubt-stuffed head is nearly always captivating.
Forty-five and divorced, the one-time amateur boxer has a family consisting of his small law firm plus a former prostitute named Nadia, who runs a gay bar called the Chelsea Hotel. While Carofiglio’s narrative is never in any rush, he has a deft way of introducing characters with whip-quick descriptions. Consuelo, a lawyer on Guerrieri’s staff who was adopted as a child from Peru, has “a dark, chubby face, with cheeks that at first sight give her a faintly comical appearance.” Though when her “dark eyes stop smiling, they transmit a very straightforward message: The only way to get me to stop fighting is to kill me.” Nadia’s German business partner, Hans, “looks like a former shot-putter who quit training and took up drinking beer instead.” The grief-ravaged father of a vibrant young woman who has vanished wears an expression that “looked like a collapsing dam.”
It’s the six-month-old disappearance of a young woman named Manuela Ferraro that Guerrieri agrees to investigate for a lawyer friend (the police have long since lost interest in the case), even though Guerrieri fears that he will be reduced to using investigative techniques he picked up from American crime novels. His insecurity is one of his most endearing qualities, along with his frequently challenged moral conscience and his sweaty ambivalence around seductive women. An alluring pal of the missing woman plays entertaining sexual games with Guerrieri for her own purposes, and he uses her right back, however guiltily.
The solution to the crime that Guerrieri eventually uncovers isn’t remarkable; it involves coke-dealing and addiction, and it’s all sadly familiar. His circuitous route to the chilling denouement is full of surprises, though, including an encounter with Nadia’s big black dog, which has only one ear. You might think when you read it that this scene is included as a mere divertissement, until Guerrieri meets a similar dog with two ears and is reminded of the dog in a Sherlock Holmes story that didn’t bark, and suddenly all the pieces surrounding the Ferraro disappearance drop into place.
It’s amazing that Guerrieri gets anything done, for his unmoored mind is constantly meandering through his past as a student, lawyer, lover and reader. In the end, nearly all of these detours figure in the unfolding of the case, and once you realize what Carofiglio is up to, it’s fun to guess what the point of any given apparent digression might be.
Even the minor characters are given sharp emotional lives. There’s a devastating scene in which Guerrieri follows the grief-stricken father of the missing woman through the streets of Bari. The old man, the lawyer realizes with a start, is heading out to meet the train his daughter had been scheduled to arrive on from Rome half a year earlier; he has probably been trudging to that station every day for six months.
Some of Guerrieri’s most affecting exchanges are with Mister Bag, the battered punching bag from his boxing years. The lawyer still knocks it around nearly every day while he sorts out his thoughts and feelings in imaginary conversations. Mr. Bag is “the perfect therapist. . . . I feel a certain tenderness toward him, but without any sexual implications.” In some ways, Mister Bag is for the unlucky-in-love Guerrieri what Susan Silverman was for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, an emotionally reassuring companion and helpmate, with no legal commitment.
Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. “Red White Black and Blue” has just been published.
By Gianrico Carofiglio
Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
Rizzoli ex libris. 331 pp. $24.95