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Murder and mystery in Rome

16th August 2023

The City of the Living: Murder and mystery in Rome – the most vicious crime in modern Roman History by Nicola Lagioia, translated by Ann Goldstein.

Murder and mystery in Rome

ROME: “Vegetation died or grew up frenetically according to whether your gaze met an urban folly or an abandoned area, two of the city’s specialities”

This is the story of two seemingly ordinary young men – Manuel Boffo and Marco Prato – who embark on a drug and alcohol fuelled spree and end up torturing and killing Luca Varani. This actually happened. Manuel readily admits to their deed, intimating that he really had little knowledge of neither his co-killer, nor their victim. This is the fictionalised story of the lead-up to the events, the responses from family and friends and from the wider community. It then considers the due process that ensues.

When something so terrible happens, there is a human need to understand and to rationalise, but given the heinous nature of this killing, the motivation remains elusive. There are factors that may have fed into the event, circumstances that aligned, motives that informed their drives, issues that fed the killing frenzy, but ultimately this is something that can never really be understood.

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The author slides himself into the narrative, which is reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It makes the reader feel as though they are standing alongside the ‘reporter’ of affairs, which gives the narrative a good level of immediacy, intimacy even.

Rome itself is portrayed as a febrile, decaying city, elements that are never far from the main areas. The tourist marvels at the grand sights and in peripheral vision visitors cannot fail to notice the stacked-up rubbish bags awaiting collection and the odd rat shooting across the road. The visceral side of the city is conjured up in colourful, if unedifying descriptions.

The book starts off at a good clip and then, once the overview has largely been painted, it loses some of its early vibrancy. There is a terrific amount of detail, some of which felt superfluous and bogged the story down. The style is like one might find in a Sunday newspaper magazine, it proves overall to be engaging and very readable.

Now, I am going to make an unpopular observation. The translation has been carried out by Ann Goldstein, who has translated the Elena Ferrante novels and therefore has a significant track record. However, at times the American/English prose here feels laboured, clunky and clumsy, and you can often hear the Italian rattling along in the background – which doesn’t make for a smooth read.

If you are a fan of true crime podcasts and fancy something in written form, then this could be a book to pick up.

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