American and British forces invaded Sicily in 1943 and Il Duce was voted out of power by his own Grand Council. He was arrested by the police upon leaving a meeting with King Vittorio Emanuele, who told him that the war was lost. The dictator's 20 year regime was thus officially terminated. Aided by the Germans, Mussolini escaped and was immediately taken to Germany for an audience with Hitler. There, the Fuehrer told him that unless he agreed to return home and form a new fascist state in Northern Italy, the Germans would destroy Milan, Genoa and Turin. Mussolini agreed to set up a new regime, the Italian Social Republic, which would be propped up by the German army.
"Carte Blanche" is set in Northern Italy, April, 1945. WWII is about to end and the Allied forces are closing in on Milan. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, as well as hundreds of Fascist Party members and government officials, are frantically attempting to flee Italy to Switzerland.
The country's entire power structure is collapsing. The author reflects this tumultuous period in his writing, "There is, above all enormous moral and political confusion that mixes together the desperation of those who know they are losing, the opportunism of those ready to change sides, the guilelessness of those who haven't understood anything, and even the desire for revenge in those who are about to arrive."
Commissario De Luca has just transferred from the "Brigate Nere," the Black Brigade, to the Questura, the regular police force. The Black Brigade, the Political Police, is one of the many paramilitary and police groups operating in the Italian Social Republic. De Luca is an extremely competent policeman and investigator who considers himself to be apolitical. He never participated in any of the brutal behavior the Brigate is known for. "You don't ask a policeman to make political choices, you ask him to do his job well." Only a few days into his new job, he is assigned to investigate a brutal murder.
Twenty-four year-old Rehinard Vittorio, a wealthy Italian citizen and member of the Fascist Republican Party since 1944, is found dead in his apartment, stabbed through the heart and groin. Vittorio's party membership was sponsored by Count Alberto Maria Tedesco, a member of the Republic's diplomatic corps. In other words, the victim was very well connected. Primary witnesses to the events surrounding the murder are the maid, and the porter, who called in the crime. Both are missing. The porter's wife, however, is present and willingly informs De Luca that Rehinard Vittorio received a constant stream of women visitors. On the morning of his death, two women were seen leaving his apartment at different times, a pretty blond, "but crazy as a loon," and a brunette with glasses. Unfortunately, in a political sense, the blond turns out to be Count Tedesco's daughter. The brunette is the wife of Tedesco's primary political rival. De Luca teams up with another cop, Maresciallo Pugliese, to solve the case and finds that the two are on the same wavelength. They work well together and there is real humor in their sardonic banter.
De Luca assumes that, given the powerful status of his potential suspects, his superiors will instruct him to go easy on the investigation, or at least to treat the people involved with much discretion to avoid upsetting them. Commissario De Luca is surprisingly wrong on this one. The Questura Chief, and the Party Secretary, Federale Vitale, inform the detective that, "It is Il Duce's express will, and ours, too, obviously, that police carry out their duties without impediments, for those matters within their jurisdiction. Why, the police must arrest thieves and murderers so that the Italian people know that in fascist Italy, even in difficult times, the law is always the law!" (Hah!!). Thus he is urged to conclude the case and deal with the powerful just as he would the common folks. He is frequently thwarted from doing his job, however, by others not involved in official crime solving. He is almost killed in one mysterious attempt on his life.
This is not only a most unusual and well written crime novel, but it also accurately portrays the historic period in Italy during the final days of WWII. The author has done extensive research and in his preface he tells about a policeman he met who actually spent forty years in the Italian police, from 1941 - 1981. This is the person who inspired "Carte Blanche" and the two other novels which follow it. One of the major points of tension in the novel, is that protagonist De Luca discovers that he, as a former member of the Black Brigade, is on the partisan's death list.
I not only enjoyed "Carte Blanche" but liked the character of Commissario De Luca. Valeria Suvich, a beautiful fortune teller, finds De Luca to be, a "person who hides." "You're the kind that's always thinking about work, you even dream about it at night," (the two had just slept together, so she knows), "the kind who's always busy, always on the run, never stopping." She tells him that few people really know who they are and what they're doing, which is why he firmly holds on to his role as a policeman. This way he doesn't have to think about the frontline, which is getting closer every day, or about food rations, or about being arrested by the partisans. The detective is a complex man, with obvious personal baggage. He has insomnia and doesn't eat very much. But there is something honest and real and compelling about him.
As I mentioned above, Carlo Lucarelli's "Carte Blanche" is the first volume in a trilogy. Following it are book 2, "The Damned Season," and book 3, "Via Delle Oche." "Carte Blanche" is quite short at 108 pages...but it really packs a punch!! Highly recommended.
The Damned Season (De Luca Trilogy 2)
Via delle Oche (De Luca Trilogy, Book 3)