Roberto Costantini’s Italian/Libyan Balistreri Trilogy

I picked up the first novel in Roberto Costantini’s Balistreri TrilogyThe Deliverance of Evil (trans. N. S. Thompson, Quercus, 2014 [2011]), at this year’s CrimeFest after seeing the author on a couple of panels. Costantini was extremely articulate about how his personal links to Tripoli and Rome shaped the trilogy and how his writing style is influenced by his work as an engineer. My interest was also piqued by the description of his main protagonist, Commissario Michele Balistreri, as a morally flawed individual with a complex political past.

Cost

Coming in at just over 600 pages, The Deliverance of Evil is a novel for readers who enjoy complex, multi-layered crime narratives. Framed by Italy’s two Football World Cup victories in 1982 and 2006, it spans twenty-five years of Italian history, but also explores the legacy of Mussolini’s right-wing dictatorship and of the so-called ‘strategy of tension’ – a series of right-wing terrorist attacks in the 1960s and 1970s (possibly encouraged by the military and intelligence services), which were blamed on communists to provoke a political shift to the right. Balistreri, the narrative’s main investigator, acts as a kind of repository for this complex history: as a young man, he was drawn to the ultra right-wing Ordine Nuovo, but when it became involved in terrorist acts, worked undercover for the state in an attempt to stop them. When the narrative opens in 1982, he has supposedly left that past behind him, after being transferred to a quiet police post in Rome.

cover_tu_sei_il_male_web

The original Italian cover

The crime at the heart of the narrative is the murder of Elisa Sordi, a young woman who works for a religious housing organisation. The detective, keen to enjoy the 1982 World Cup final, is distracted during the initial investigation. This and a number of other factors result in the case remaining unsolved until 2006, when another woman is murdered in apparently similar circumstances. Wracked with remorse and guilt for his earlier failures, Balistreri vows to solve both cases and uncover the truth.

The Deliverance of Evil is a hugely absorbing, accomplished piece of work. While the denouement, which resembles an intricate origami creation, had me raising an eyebrow a little at times, the figure of Balistreri, together with the clever construction of the narrative and its dissection of Italian privilege, politics and racism made for a highly gripping read. I’ll definitely be seeking out the second in the trilogy, which moves back in time to the 1960s to explore Balistreri’s troubled past in Libya.

I have a bit of a thing about crime trilogies or quartets. They’re often quite special, which I think is due to two factors. Firstly, they give authors the chance to explore multiple facets of an overarching story in a group of novels, allowing them to create extended and complex literary worlds. Conversely, the limit of having a set number of novels (as opposed to an on-going series), encourages authors to take more risks, especially in terms of the characterisation of their protagonists and the overall denouement. Standalones and trilogies/quartets are thus usually more hard-hitting than a series, not least because they don’t need to safeguard the investigator or main protagonist indefinitely. They also often undertake a wide-ranging social and/or political critique, which I like.

10_peace_quartet

Here are few of my favourite crime trilogies and quartets:

David Peace’s Yorkshire Noir/Red Riding Quartet (1974197719801984), which is set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper case and provides a brilliant depiction of corrupt policing cultures.

Andrew Taylor’s Roth/Requiem for an Angel Trilogy (The Four Last ThingsThe Judgement of Strangers, The Office of the Dead) which skillfully excavates the history of a female serial killer, beginning in the present day and moving back to the 1970s and the 1950s.

Ben Winter’s Last Policeman Trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble), set in a superbly realised world on the brink of destruction (I still need to read the final novel, and am looking forward to it very much).

Winter last policeman

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), featuring the remarkable, indefatigable Lisbeth Salander.

Leif G.W. Persson’s Story of a Crime Trilogy (Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, Another Time, Another Life and Free Falling, As in a Dream), which probes the unsolved assassination of Olof Palme in an absorbing and darkly sardonic manner.

Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir Trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem), which explores Nazi Germany in 1936 and 1938 and Allied Occupation in 1947 through the eyes of former Berlin policeman Bernie Gunther. The author later extended the trilogy into a series, but the original three novels remain the best in my view.

Perhaps you have others we could add to this list? 

Update: Well, what a brilliant response. Thanks to MarinaSofia, Margot, Rebecca, Bernadette, David, Tracey and Angela for their suggestions (see also their comments and those of others below), and to Barbara, Jose Ignacio and Craig Sisterson via Twitter for trilogies/quartets by women authors. All listed below…

Further great crime fiction trilogies and quartets: 

Lisa Brackman’s China Trilogy (Rock, Paper, Tiger; Dragon Day; Hour of the Rat)

James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz)

Lyndsay Faye’s New York Trilogy (The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret, The Fatal Flame)

Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow Quartet (The Hanging Shed, Bitter Water, Pilgrim Soul, Gallowglass)

Alan Glynn’s Land Trilogy (Winterland, Bloodland, Graveland – set in Ireland)

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille Trilogy (Total Chaos, Chourmo, Solea)

Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen)

William McIllvaney’s Laidlaw Trilogy (Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, Walking Wounded – set in Glasgow)

Adrian McKinty’s Troubles Quartet (The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone and Gun Street Girl – set in Ireland)

Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution – set in Glasgow, Scotland)

Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan Trilogy (The Field of Blood, The Dead Hour, The Final Breath – set in Glasgow, Scotland)

Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet (Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red, Havana Black)

George Pelecanos’ D.C. Quartet (The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil)

Dolores Redondo’s Baztan Trilogy. The first, The Invisible Guardian is available in translation and is set in Spain’s Basque country. The other two are entitled Legado en los huesos (Legacy in the Bones) and Ofrenda a la tormenta (Offering to the Storm).

John Williams Cardiff Trilogy (Five Pubs, Two Bars And A Nightclub; Cardiff Dead; The Prince of Wales)

Robert Wilson’s Falcon Quartet (The Blind Man of Seville; The Silent and the Damned; The Hidden Assassins; The Ignorance of Blood – set in Spain)

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44 thoughts on “Roberto Costantini’s Italian/Libyan Balistreri Trilogy

  1. Excellent post! I have ordered the first Constantini, and have no doubt it will be a beaut. Thanks also for that selection of trilogies. At our house, the Phillip Kerr trilogy is well dog-eared as we both like to dip in every couple of years. It’s still as great as we all remember – woo hoo! I must have a look at some of the suggested others. Cheers, and good health to you

    • Thanks, Simon, and hope you enjoy the Costantini.

      Like you, I’m very fond of the Kerr – I remember reading the three novels back to back one holiday and having that wonderful feeling of having discovered something really special.

      If you tackle any of the others, do let me know what you think. Trilogies do require more dedication on the part of the reader, but if they’re good, are hugely rewarding. All the best, Mrs Pea

  2. I too like trilogies or quartets, especially when they have been planned as such (rather than just petering out or having sequels added because the first book did so well). I would also mention Robert Wilson’s Falcon quartet, set in Seville, the Lewis trilogy by Peter May, William McIllvaney’s classic Laidlaw trilogy and Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet.
    And I have to admit I haven’t read all of them but want to revisit them all: James Ellroy’s LA Quartet – I’ve only read The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential.

    • Thanks, MarinaSofia – you make some great suggestions there. I’ll create a list and add them to the post shortly.

      I haven’t read the Padura Quartet – definitely one to add to the TBR pile *rubs hands with glee*.

  3. Trilogies and quartets can be fabulous, Mrs. P. Have you read Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow Trilogy? In my opinion it’s a terrific interlocked set of post-war stories. Recommended. And there’s Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet, set in late-eighties’ Cuba.
     
    As to the Costantini, it sounds lie a fine read and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Hi, Margot. I’ve read one of Ferris’s Glasgow novels, but hadn’t realised that it was part of a trilogy. Thanks for the heads up, and I’ll add it to the list I’m putting together for the end of the post. MarinaSofia has come up with some goodies too…

  4. Thanks for reminding me about this book. I had read a review of it befor, but then forgot about it! Will definitely get this one. Reading & enjoying ‘Oblivion’, didn’t realize he had a new one out till you mentioned it!
    Did you read the ‘Kasper Mierer’ book? If so what did you think of it? I enjoyed it, but found the ending some what disappointing. Certainly an interesting read, don’t know what you’d put it down as thriller or just novel? Certainly a good read. Also enjoyed ‘Snowblind’ more excellent Noir from
    Iceland.
    Shame that we won’t get anything from LG Persson this year, according to Amazon they’ve both been put back to 2016, a real disappointment.

    • Costantini had been on my list too for a while; it was seeing him again at CrimeFest that finally got me to buy the book. Hope you enjoy, and good to hear that you’re enjoying Oblivion as well. I’m really happy that the Erlendur series has a new lease of life.

      I recently finished The Spring of Kasper Meier and had mixed feelings about it. I thought the depiction of the defeated and bombed-out Berlin was well done, as was the description of life at the time, but like you, didn’t quite feel that it succeeded in terms of its crime narrative or the denouement.

      I’m really glad to hear you liked Snowblind. It seems to be doing extremely well in terms of positive reviews and reader reactions, which is great to see. It’s published by Orenda Books, which is a small but perfectly formed new press. It’s head, Karen Sullivan, has a very good eye for authors and books – definitely one to watch (http://orendabooks.co.uk/).

  5. The first trilogy that comes to mind is Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. I’ve only read the first, Total Chaos, and it was quite good. Books 2 and 3 are sitting on my shelves!

    I was put off by the anti-hero in the Costantini, and reading about all the background information in your post makes me reconsider it a bit. I wonder when the rest of the books are coming out: I think I read book 2 goes back in time.

    • Thanks, Rebecca – how could I have forgotten Izzo’s trilogy?! I loved Total Chaos, but have yet to read the others as well. Will add to the list.

      Your comment on Costantini is interesting. I already knew a little about postwar Italy’s history and do think that added to my reading experience. What you say makes me wonder how much the novel depends on readers already having that historical knowledge before reading the book – one of the issues when international novels are translated, I guess (Italian readers would have a definite head start on us).

      Yes, I think you’re right about book 2 going back in time. Readers have not responded quite as favourably to that one, but I’m going to give it a go.

  6. Wow! I had no idea there were so many great crime trilogies (and quartets!) out there. Got so much good reading set in foreign places to catch up on – glad I am on holiday to be able to make a start. Cheers ;o)

    • Hi, Marianne! I’m quite surprised at how many trilogies/quartets there are out there too – lots more popping up in the comments now as well, which I’ll gather up shortly.

      Hope you enjoy your holiday – nothing finer than having time to fully enjoy some criminal reading set in foreign climes 🙂

  7. I will add another voice of admiration for the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May. It is not seen as a crime novel, but those in search of great trilogies might look at the work of the Canadian master, Robertson Davies. Start with the Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. Thank you for this great set of suggestions.

    • Hello David. I very much enjoyed the first of the Lewis Trilogy and have the other two waiting for me on my shelves – time to dust them off…

      Thanks for recommending the Davies – will read up on the novels you mention.

  8. Mmmm, the Costantini books sound great. Trilogies – what about the Korolev books by William Ryan? I don’t know if more are planned but there are three at the moment!

    • Thanks, Tracey – good suggestion. I’m not sure whether William Ryan is planning to write further Korolev books. Have dropped him a line to ask…

      • There’s another due out in 2017. Apologies for the delay – a standalone (2016) got in the way. Nothing agreed after that but it will certainly be a quartet (and hopefully more than that).

  9. I must admit to wimping out on the David Peace trilogy – I only read the first one – I owned the other two books for ages before deciding I would never read them – not bad just too depressing for me. I like a smidgen of hope buried somewhere in there

    George Pelecanos’ DC Quartet has been on my radar for ages though I’ve not actually gotten around to reading it.

    does Alan Glyn’s ‘land’ trilogy count? Winterland, Bloodland and Graveland? an exploration of modern Ireland in a loosely connected way

    • Hi Bernadette. You’re definitely not alone in deciding to step away from the Peace quartet. It’s extremely hard-hitting and quite bleak in tone. I’ve seen Peace in interview discussing the depiction of violence in 1974 – he says that he would not have been so graphic had he been writing now. That having been said, they are still truly extraordinary novels. Collectively, they perhaps have extra resonance for those who remember the Yorkshire Ripper murders and investigation. Their critique of police corruption is also outstanding (and subsequent revelations suggest they hit the mark).

      Thanks for reminding me about Pelecanos – a very important one to add to the list. Have loved what I’ve read by him. I haven’t heard of Glyn’s ‘land’ trilogy, but will be sure to check it out.

  10. I like Adrian McKinty’s ‘Troubles Trilogy’-turned-quartet, set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and featuring Sean Duffy. All books are named after lyrics in Tom Waits’ songs: The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone and Gun Street Girl. Welsh writer John Williams Cardiff Trilogy is also very entertaining, providing insight into a city in transition.

    • Thanks very much, Angela. I have all the McKinty novels waiting on my shelf for me to read. Lots of reviewers have raved about them – they’re clearly something special. I didn’t realise the titles had a Tom Waits connection – very cool indeed.

      And now a rich irony: here I am an hour down the road from Cardiff being introduced to John Williams’ trilogy by you as you sit in Australia. Actually, that’s what I love about the interwebs 🙂 Will definitely be adding to the TBR pile.

  11. Just read the first of the Ben Winters trilogy and really enjoyed it – I’ll seek out the Constantini series when I’m back home again, thanks Mrs P. Sorry to see that all is users of the ‘twenty ten’ layout appear to be suffering from a WordPress purge!

    • I’ve read the first two of the Winters trilogy and really loved them. That kind of concept is incredibly difficult to pull off, but he does it really well.

      WordPress problems seem to be resolving – fingers crossed!

      Hope you’re having a lovely time – enjoy your break 🙂

  12. There are some excellent trilogies and quartets listed here, and I must jot some down for the groaning TBR list. It’s good to try one and see if that series works for each reader.
    However, one glaring omission is the lack of women writers. Don’t any writer good quartets?
    I know that Rebecca Cantrell’s quartet about Hannah Vogel in 1930s Germany has gotten very favorable reviews over the years.
    Aren’t there others?
    Is the trilogy/quartet format not one preferred by women writers or are there other good ones that haven’t gotten recognition? If that is the case, we readers and bloggers should take note and try to change this so they get recognition.

    • Hi Kathy – you make an excellent and very important point. You’re right – the list is male author dominated – and I do also wonder why that is. I will do a little digging around to see if I can find any trilogies/quartets by women, in case I have overlooked them.

      I’m not entirely sure that Cantrell’s Vogel novels should be classified as a quartet (i.e. conceived as a quartet and concluding with book 4). There are indeed four of them at the moment, but I’ve just been over to her website where they are titled as the ‘Hannah Vogel series’, which suggests that there are more to come: http://rebeccacantrell.com/books/hannah-vogel-series/. So they may fall into the same category as William Ryan’s Korolev series (see comments above). I’ll keep an eye on this.

      Update: see David’s comment – Denise Mina!

  13. Anne Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet has turned into a series with six books, so the quartet concept has fallen by the wayside and I would imagine it’s because of the joy of writing this series or the publishers’ request.

    • I’ve read some of the Shetland novels and enjoyed them very much. I hadn’t realised that they started off as a quartet… That’s a new category then: trilogies and quartets that ‘changed their minds’, probably due to the success of the first three/four novels.

  14. I loved the Garnethill trilogy and Paddy Meehan by Mina. I thought the Alex Morrow books were going to be another trilogy, but the author keeps writing them, so they must be a publishing success and either Mina or the publisher wanted them to continue. They are very gritty at this point.

  15. Just finished the Costantini novel. Wow what a book! Agree with everything you said, an excellent review. I must admit I do love these deeply ploted books, that’s why I enjoy LG Persson so much, nothing like a good 500/600 pager in which you have to use your brain! Yes I agree with the raising of the eyebrow towards the end! About three quarters of the way through I did have my suspicions
    of the killer of Elisa was, glad to say I was right.
    It’s the intricate ploting that I admired, he must have had the plots of both books worked out, all the little tasters in the first for the second one. I can well see how his training as an engineer came in handy. 100 pages in to the first one I downloaded the second as I new I was going to like this guy.
    Good at last to have an Italian who can match the Scandis!
    Did you by any chance catch 1992 which was on Sky Arts, made by Sky Italia, politically on the same lines as this, without all the killings! Well worth catching.

    • Really glad to hear you enjoyed the Costantini, Brian. You’re right to make that comparison to the Larsson novels – they definitely offer something substantial for us to get our teeth into! The later Costaninis have not had quite as good a reception, but like you, I’m going to give them a go to see how everything fits together. I like the idea of going back in time now to see how B came to be as we found him at the beginning book 1.

      I didn’t see 1992 – one to note. I thought the Costantini had a bit of Romanzo Criminale about it as well (the film), in terms of tracking key protagonists over time.

  16. Goodness gracious me, what a cracking read the Costantini is – another big thanks for the tip. I just love that he is an engineer by trade, it really does show in the structure. I have been in the middle of the Elena Ferrante trilogy (now a fourth book on release), not crime, but equally well structured, overlapping cities, time periods, reveals and macguffins that one has to keep the eye peeled for.

    Another applauso for 1992 (I should add, my company distributes DVDs in Australia) – it’s marvellous, a newer, more sophisticated style of Italian crime drama – by the producers of both Romanzo Criminale, and Gomorrah TV series – so a level of satisfaction is pretty well assured. I’ve got the final Ferrante book now, and will then switch back to close out the Costantini for now.

    Look forward to your holiday reading reviews too

    • I’m really glad you’re enjoying the Costantini. I’ve been seeing reviews of the Ferrante around the place. These novels are definitely on my TBR pile – they sound wonderful. It’s just a question of finding some time… And I must try to get hold of 1992 – I loved Romanzo Criminale.

      I’ll be posting my holiday reviews over the next few weeks. It turned out to be a really good batch of novels. I’ve just finished Padura’s Havana Fever, which was extremely enjoyable, not least because it very eloquently extols the virtues of books and libraries 🙂

      • Ah yes, the books and libraries, I had forgotten about that element of the Padura books. For me, aside from the excellent crime story-lines, I found the mis-en-scene most excellent – powerfully evocative of the parts of Havana that I knew, and remembered fondly.

        Cheery pip!

      • Hi Simon – I’ve yet to read the other Havana novels (I have a tendency to read things backwards), but can agree with you about the setting just on the basis of that one novel – especially the grim depictions of the barrios. Padura doesn’t pull his punches, which I find interesting given that he still lives in Cuba. Something I plan to look into further.

        I’ve never been to Cuba – jealous of you! Did you live there or were you visiting?

      • My wife and I spent a month there pre-kids in 1997. It was a difficult trip, for many reasons, but never less than fascinating, I am so glad we did it. I’d have a different approach now, but I reckon now is a very good time to consider a trip – the time capsule essence of it all will be up like a puff as soon as Fidel dies – assuming he does 🙂

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  18. I seem to be a lone voice but I found the Constantini book too long, too complicated and with a bit of a daft denouement. In fact I guessed who had killed Elisa back in the 1982 section of the book. I’m really a bit bemused by the rave reviews it’s had. I love trilogies – usually I can’t wait to move onto the next volume but not this time.

    • Hi Kathryn – as it happens, I guessed pretty early on too, but didn’t feel it dented my reading experience – almost the opposite, in fact. I can understand that the novel isn’t to everyone’s taste (and there probably isn’t a single book out there that all of its readers have liked). It *is* very long, and life is too short to continue to the second if the first didn’t do it for you. I have Number 2 on the shelf, but have yet to take the plunge. Too big a commitment at the moment, but hope to get round to it…this year!

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