Review: INVOLUNTARY WITNESS by Gianrico Carofiglio

I’ve read the second and fourth books in the series focusing on Bari lawyer Guido Guerrieri already, but on reviewing my Audible library recently I discovered the first instalment has been awaiting my ears for several years.

It is an odd book though I mean this, mostly, in a good way. It is crime fiction only if your definition of the term is broad. Generously broad.

The book opens with Guido Guerrieri going through a rough period in his life. His wife has asked for a divorce and his reaction to that – or to life in general – has manifest itself physically by way of insomnia and sometimes embarrassing bouts of crying or panic. He does see a doctor about it all but ignores the advice (and medication) given and instead takes up boxing, something he used to do in his youth. Interspersed with Guerrieri’s personal travails are some minor legal matters that have nothing to do with the overall plot. Such as it is. Eventually we learn about the events described in the book’s blurb. Namely a young boy has been found dead on a Bari beach and a Senegalese man, Abdou Thiam, has been charged with his murder. When Guerrieri is introduced to the case there has already been an initial hearing with a court-appointed lawyer and no one, aside from the man’s few friends, believe anything more needs to be done other than lock him up and throwing away the key.

Although I’m not going to say much more about the plot details I should point out that it probably isn’t what you’re imagining right now. This is not an Italian version of a Grisham or Turow legal thriller. Guerrieri does not race about Bari looking for clues or alternative suspects. He makes a couple of moves that can, if you apply the same generously broad definition as earlier, be described as investigative but he’s no Perry Mason. At first this is a bit difficult to get used to – a matter of expectations I suppose – but Carofiglio does know how to tell a good story and I was utterly hooked. The final third is perhaps more traditionally procedural in that it takes us inside the courtroom but these scenes too are…unexpected…in tone and plotting. Guerrieri’s passionate defence of Abdou Thiam offers some nuanced insights into the Italian legal system, no doubt benefiting from its author’s experience as a legal practitioner himself, and an incisive commentary on human nature.

The characterisation of Guerrieri is, ultimately, well-rounded though at first it seemed as if it would not be. I would have liked to learn a little more about some of the other people, especially Abdou Thiam, though his depiction is deftly handled even if we do not spend enough time with him for my liking.

My only real gripe with the novel is probably an issue with the translation rather than the original text though I guess I’ll never know. The ‘N’ word is used repeatedly to refer to the many African immigrants in Bari and Abdou Thiam in particular and I found this very jarring (particularly as I was listening to the audio version not reading the printed word). I don’t know if there is an Italian word of similar meaning but with (hopefully) less stigma attached or not, but either way I find it difficult to believe an alternative word, even a derogatory one in keeping with the context, was impossible to find. I cannot imagine this particular translation choice being acceptable to the American market at all and am surprised it was seen as such for the UK one.

That issue aside I thoroughly enjoyed INVOLUNTARY WITNESS, not least because it repeatedly confounded my expectations for a ‘legal procedural’ and ultimately offered a fascinating social and legal commentary. Its resolution would not sit well with those who dislike loose ends but I thought it fit the rest of the story admirably. Sean Barrett is one of my favourite audio narrators and, again, does a great job with this story.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Seán Barrett
Translator Patrick Creagh
Publisher This edition Audible Studios, 2011
Length 7 hours 30 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the Guido Guerrieri series
Source of review copy I bought it

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4 Responses to Review: INVOLUNTARY WITNESS by Gianrico Carofiglio

  1. Jose Ignacio says:

    One of my favourite series, Bernadette. I’m glad you liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    It certainly does sound like an unusual series, Bernadette. I can see how it’s not a ‘typical’ crime fiction novel (if there even is such a thing). Still, it sounds interesting, and I like the setting. Very much. And when an author can include social and legal commentary without preaching, I consider that a real skill.


  3. tracybham says:

    I have not tried anything by this author, but your opinion of this book does encourage me to do that, given the chance.


  4. kathy d. says:

    I read this a few years ago and liked it.


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