‘Dogs keep turning up in this story.’
As you may have noticed, I have a little habit for quotations about dogs. It dates to the early drafts of my novel, when I noted down any dog reference for my background archive. As it turns out, Valero Varesi’s most recent novel is a great dog resource, although the title, The Lizard Strategy, seems like a missed opportunity.
I first picked up Varesi when I’d hit a particular dry point in terms of reading. Poetry bored me, fiction bored me, especially my own. I’d started experimenting with painting and felt a lot happier once I renounced words. Still, something is always calling you, a signal beyond the range of normal hearing. The old compulsion came back. I started writing a crime novel, and thought I’d get in touch with the genre again. I found myself in the LRB bookshop where I picked up a copy of River of Shadows. It ticked a few boxes: European, contemporary, very much with a keen sense of place. I’ve looked forward to each new translation ever since.
The books follow the investigations of Commissario Soneri. Politically weary (aren’t we all), at odds with the changing world but clinging to a sense of moral rectitude, Soneri makes for an appealing, if not exactly groundbreaking, hero. The real character in the Varesi books is the geographical location: the city of Parma and the surrounding riverside landscape, along the banks of the Taro, the Parma, the Baganza and the Po. It appears as a dark, corrupt place, where political machinations and bad blood go hand in hand with people foraging for mushrooms and truffles. It’s nice to see that Varesi (like Montalban, Sallis, and Izzo) believes that food is an essential part of a detective’s world (there’s a blog post in that), and the novel is rich in delicacies from the Emilia-Romagna region. It’s to this book I owe my fondness for real Lambrusco as a good, dark wine of spritz and substance, and not the weak crap left over at the end of a party.
Overall, though, it’s the character of the rivers which haunt the book, each one snaking its path through an amphibious landscape with mystery and shadow. And through the mist, the dogs come unbidden, wandering over when you don’t expect it.