For those of you who don’t know, I’m a fan of Italian author Massimo Carlotto. If you want to read some of the finest Italian crime fiction written, then seek out Death’s Dark Abyss or The Goodbye Kiss—both books offer views of Carlotto’s dark worlds of crime, worlds in which morality is an idea for textbooks and has very little to do with the choices life puts in front of us.
But first a word about Massimo Carlotto. His non-fiction book, The Fugitive, recounts how, as a member of Lotta Continua, he was charged with a crime he did not commit. After three trials he was acquitted, but when the acquittal was overturned, he faced a sentence of 18 years in prison. Carlotto went on the run and eventually ended up in a Mexican jail.
Carlotto knows first hand about ‘justice,’ imprisonment, and institutional violence, and no doubt all this experience is what makes his novels seem so authentic. While he’s written stand-alone novels, there’s also a PI series which features Marco Burrati–otherwise known as the Alligator. The Master of Knots is number 5 in the Alligator series, and while there are some references to the past, I don’t think it’s essential to read the prior 4. I haven’t.
The Master of Knots finds Marco in his club, La Cuccia which also serves as his unofficial PI office. Marco’s past includes 7 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, so he is forced to register the club in someone else’s name. Business is good, and there’s no financial need to take PI cases, but Marco feels driven by a need to seek justice for those who either have no recourse to the law, or those, who, for a variety of reasons, find the legal system ineffectual or out-of-bounds. Marco’s long-time girlfriend Virna (Bandit Love) who’s unaware of Marco’s past does not understand Marco’s desire to take investigative cases, and this has led to a severance of their relationship. To Marco, his PI work “gave some meaning” to his life, and he can’t let it go.
Marco’s help is sought by a rather weasely man named Giraldi, who claims that his wife Helena, an S & M model with a perfect body, has been kidnapped after keeping a rendezvous with a stranger she met on the internet. Marco dislikes Giraldi immediately, and after a cursory overview of the facts, Marco knows that the husband’s story stinks, but he agrees to take the case.
This missing person’s case takes Marco and his associates, aging old-world gangster Rossini (who sports a gold bracelet, a “scalp,” for every man he’s killed), and anti-globalist activist Max deep into the secret world of S & M. Max, who considers that Helena is in the hands of a “maniac” feels a moral imperative to become involved while Rossini considers the case as something outside of a gangster’s interest. The three men soon penetrate the secret world of S & M, learn the rules for encounters, and conclude that according to Giraldi’s story, his wife Helena, an experienced “slave,” broke every rule in the book. This leads Marco to conclude that either Helena was careless or that Giraldi is lying through his teeth, and if he’s lying, what does he hope to gain? Marco initially doesn’t understand the attraction of S & M at all, but gradually he comes to accept that for some people it fills a deep-seated need.
Playing a role was not a performance they put on just to have some enjoyable sex. There was something deeper that drove people to construct perfectly organized double lives. It was vital that nobody outside the S and M scene should know a thing, not even their nearest and dearest. Discovery would destroy their lives totally.
Cracking open the S & M circuit is no easy matter–especially when those involved are suspicious of outsiders and cautious when it comes to interactions. The lives of S & M players are by their very nature secret, and everyone Marco meets leads double lives. With the help of a couple of Sardinian computer hackers, Marco accesses forums and e-mails of the sites Helena cruised. As Marco goes deeper and deeper into the S & M world, ugly memories from his prison years float to the surface. These are things he’d much rather forget, but seeing sex and violence entwined disturbs Marco and his two associates deeply.
The Master of Knots is the story of a missing S & M model, but it’s much more than that. The impact of violence is central to this story, and S & M–with its variety of sexual encounters performed with mutual consent, rules and various safety boundaries has spun out of control into something much more dangerous. The entire concept of S & M is outside of Marco, Rossini, and Max’s experience, and they don’t understand it, but when they uncover blackmail and underground films that fetch a high price, they are motivated to solve the case. Marco learns that some S & M “masters” have their very own, well-equipped secret dungeons. For a man who’s endured false imprisonment, torture, and beatings, the idea that some people elect to engage in S & M, even with its rules and boundaries, is simply inconceivable.
Violence–its use and misuse appears frequently in the novel. Violence towards women, violence within the prison system between inmates and between inmates and guards, and then there’s violence of the state towards those who disagree with government policies. We see the latter through Max’s new-found activism, and his refusal to listen to Marco’s warnings concerning the very real possibility of violence at the G-8 protest. Marco has moved on from activism–hence the PI work, as it’s an arena he can control. Max, however, is eager to attend the protests–even though it’s guaranteed to turn violent, and Max, middle-aged and overweight, will make an easy target. Here’s Marco warning Max about the realities of prison and finding yourself in the hands of the State:
“Back in the days when grassing up your comrades was just getting to be the height of fashion, those involved in armed struggle began to lose any trust they had ever had in one another. So every time one of them went to see the doctor, the prison governor, or the prison admin office, he had to be accompanied by a fellow comrade just to make sure he didn’t cut a deal with the cops. But in the end they always found a way.”
“Torture had fuck-all to do with it. The only thing they were afraid of was doing time and growing old behind bars. They got off lightly, every last one of them.”
“I can’t see what you’re driving at.”
“You can understand and forgive someone who talks because his nuts are in a vice. Anybody can have a moment’s weakness, but ratting is something else. So before you get yourself in trouble it’s best to work out whether or not you have the balls to do prison.”
Carlotto’s novels are lean, hard-boiled and devoid of sentimentality. Marco, Rossini, and Max are the good guys here, but their methods are unorthodox, illegal, and very violent. There are no rules for these men; they do what is necessary to solve the case, and in this instance, the mystery surrounding the missing S & M model, turns even their stomachs. There’s no sense of do-gooding here–it’s more a matter of clearing out cockroaches. Since Marco operates in his own criminal world with underworld contacts, the police are always in the periphery of Marco’s shady world. While Marco is the brains of the outfit, Rossini is the enforcer who clearly enjoys his work. Marco admits:
The rule is that when you need information, first you ask nicely and then you break bones. Face it, it’s a method we use, too. Intimidation, violence, and blackmail are the only techniques for making people talk.
At just 179 page, The Master of Knots, part of Europa Edition’s World Noir series, is a slim, quick, and enjoyable read. There were a couple of gruesome moments but the details were not slobbered over. Finally, I loved the character of Donatella Morganti. Marco finds her extremely attractive–until she opens her mouth, so just a touch of humour slips into the story. Anyway, another engaging entry in a good series.
Translated by Christopher Woodall.