The American by Nadia Dalbuono
It takes a certain level of chutzpah to tackle big global themes in a police procedural, but an equal if not greater measure of panache to pull off. Luckily for readers, Nadia Dalbuono has both in spades and The American, a sequel to her brilliant debut The Few, is a novel that amply demonstrates the author’s not inconsiderable talents.
Once again we are with Detective Leone Scamarcio, of the Rome police Flying Squad. The son of a Mafiosi, he is distrusted by many of his colleagues in the police force. While this suspicion is on the whole unjust – he is an honest cop committed to the rule of law - he remains conflicted between a desire to turn his back on the mafia once and for all and the ease through which he can short cut the infamous clunking Italian judiciary by use of his uncle’s criminal contacts. As with the previous novel, the Faustian Pact he strikes and his attempt to walk the tightrope between legality and illegality adds a gripping undercurrent of existential risk to Scamarcio’s character arc.
The main plot involves an even bigger conspiracy than that which appeared in The Few, though the child pornographers and killers from that story remain in the background and may well seek some sort of vengeance in a future book. This time Scamarcio attends the scene of an apparent suicide only to be dragged into a conspiracy that embraces the world of international espionage and great power politics.
But this is no purely fictional scandal. Like Oliver Stone with his film JFK, Dalbuono utilises a strong factual base to weave her story. The Vatican’s role in supporting both the Solidarity movement in Poland and less wholesome movements in Latin America is touched upon. As is Operation Gladio, the so-called stay behind armies, which the United States prepared in Western Europe in the 1960’s for the event that the continent fell to a Soviet invasion. The links between Gladio and the political violence Italy experienced in the 1970’s is also dealt with. All of this is well-documented historical fact and Dalbuono weaves it into her narrative without ever overburdening the story or slowing the pace.
Finally she adds the fictional layer that drives her story forward to the present day. Or at least, I sincerely hope it’s fictional. And this is where my earlier comparison with Oliver Stone’s JFK is apt. For as Stone took historical detail from the era of Kennedy’s assassination and used it to build a narrative suggestive of conspiracy, Dalbuono takes the facts outlined above and uses them to suggest that 9/11 was the Vatican and Gladio’s bastard offspring.
I’m generally sceptical of conspiracy theory. The idea that there are dark actors pulling the strings of history seems fanciful to me. Gladio is a good illustration of this: while some might argue that the political violence that Italy suffered in the 1970’s was a desired outcome of the plotters, that it prevented the country from going Communist, an equally strong case could be made for it being a disaster borne of ineptitude. Much of the evidence to emerge on Gladio over the past forty years is that the CIA armed a plethora of far right nutcases, fantasists and lunatics, that they had little control over their proxies, and that the violence of the seventies led to the whole deck of cards collapsing.
If this seems like I’m going off on a tangent, then bear with me. For what I’m suggesting is that while on the whole I’m suspicious of conspiracy theory and would never normally entertain the notion that 9/11 was a US plot, the brilliance of this book is that by the end of it I was starting to doubt my own certainty. This book had me almost convinced the Sept 11th attacks were a put up job, that Osama bin Laden was nothing but a CIA puppet, and that the whole edifice of the “war on terror” was a cynical plot to persuade Western publics to support war with no end.
If this review makes The American sound too heavy, more textbook or polemic, then please don’t misunderstand. The American is a compelling page-turner of a thriller, complete with likeable protagonist in Leone Scamarcio. But while Nadia Dalbuono has been compared to Donna Leone, I would argue that a better comparison would be with the greats of alternate and counterfactual history, writers like James Ellroy and David Peace.
Brilliant and inspired, this is a novel you don’t’ want to miss and I applaud the scale of Nadia Dalbuono’s talent and ambition.
I award this a well deserved five out of five stars.