Gianrico Carofiglio: Involuntary Witness aka Testimone inconsapevole (2002) First in an Italian Legal Thriller Series

A nine-year-old boy is found murdered at the bottom of a well near a popular beach resort in southern Italy. In what looks like a hopeless case for Guido Guerrieri, counsel for the defence, a Senegalese peddler is accused of the crime. Faced with small-town racism fuelled by the recent immigration from Africa, Guido attempts to exploit the esoteric workings of the Italian courts. More than a perfectly paced legal thriller, this relentless suspense novel transcends the genre. A powerful attack on racism, and a fascinating insight into the Italian judicial process, it is also an affectionate portrait of a deeply humane hero.

Former anti-Mafia prosecutor Gianrico Carofiglio is said to write some of the best legal thrillers Italy has to offer. I am not an expert when it comes to legal thrillers but  his novel Involuntary Witness, the first in the series centering on Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, is really good. Guerrieri is such a likable character and the themes of the novel are varied, spanning from racism, immigration, relationships and marriage, the meaning of life, to the Italian criminal system.

Guerrieri has recently been divorced and is very depressed. At the beginning of the novel he has panic attacks, can hardly sleep. He is a vulnerable, pensive  man who likes to read, have long discussions about books, movies and music. He loves St. Exupéry, Picnic at Hanging Rock and the music of David Gray. As a criminal lawyer he has to do some dubious things and tries to ignore whether his clients are guilty or not. After all, he is paid to get them out, no matter what they did. But Guerrieri has  a conscience that’s why he often wonders if what he does is really right. He also lives dangerously occasionally.
One of the best parts of the novel is the change Guerrieri undergoes. The person at the beginning of the novel isn’t the same as the one at the end. Just to watch him, follow him, first through his misery and later when he starts to enjoy life again, feels so realistic. I started to believe after a while that the description was based on a real person.

Guerrieri is good at his job, no doubt about it. There is always work for him. We sense that Carofiglio knows what he is writing about. The descriptions of the city and the court, the people, the lawyers, judges, policemen, prosecutors are realistic. The series is set in the Southern Italian town of Bari, an attractive location, close to the sea.

The story is rather simple. A nine year old boy is found murdered in a well. Due to some unfortunate circumstances a Senegalese immigrant is accused of the murder. The case looks hopeless as there is a lot of evidence against the man. Guerrieri isn’t even sure at first whether he should accept to defend him but he feels pity and finally accepts.

I wasn’t familiar with the subgenre of the legal thriller. At least not in book form. The focus is really on the trial and whether the accused will be sentenced or not. Guerrieri isn’t playing the role of an investigator. He thinks his client is innocent but he doesn’t try to find someone who might have done it or even find out why the child has been killed.

In Italy Carofiglio’s novels are considered to be much more than just thrillers and I can see why. The books seem to tell the story of an interesting man who happens to be a criminal lawyer and is excellent in his job, but this isn’t the most important element of the books. Guerrieri’s outlook on life, the way he sees and analyses people is far more important.

Involuntary Witness is an excellent book and I am certainly going to read the next in the series. I absolutely want to know what happens to Guerrieri and where life and love will lead him.

Do you know the series or any other legal thrillers that you like?

34 thoughts on “Gianrico Carofiglio: Involuntary Witness aka Testimone inconsapevole (2002) First in an Italian Legal Thriller Series

      • I’m not sure that it’s in the series. It’s more about the relationship between two men–one very charismatic and dominant, and the other is weaker. It’s set in Bari, too.

        On series detectives, I like Andrea Camilleri (Italian detective) and Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Mexican PI). Oh and Leo Malet’s Nestor Burma

        • I checked after I wrote my comment and saw that it isn’t in the series. I really want to read the second one. I have read Leo Malet and like him a lot. Especially the one in which he wrote about one of the places where I used to live and where Hemingway lived as well, La Place de la Contrescarpe. I haven’t read Camilleri, I always thought it was too much on the cozy side. Although I like UK/US cozies, in small doses, the idea of an Italian cozy sounded somewhat odd. I see I was wrong and he doesn’t write cozies or you wouldn’t have recommended him. I’m tempted to try the Mexican one as that is something I haven’t read so far. Thanks for the recommendations.

          • I don’t think that the Camilleri are cosies. I suppose there are various definitions, but the crimes here (in Camilleri) can be rather nasty. In the cosy, I never really take the violence seriously. Yes it can extend to the little old lady sleuth who lives in a picturesque village. The Inspector Montalbano mysteries are strong because of the main character. He’s someone you want to hang out with.

            I’ve read quite a few Taibo novels. I remember in one of them, a character begins crank calling hotels and gets totally carried away with it. Taibo’s novels are funny but they can also be very bleak.

            • I will certainly keep Taibo in mind. Guerrieri is a guy like that as well, someone one would like in real life.
              I agree cozy mysteries are not about the crime, they are about all sorts of other things but not the crime. If it’s too graphic it will not be enjoyed. The readers want to be able to rely on that. Still I have read a few I realy liked.

              • Once in a while, if you’re in the right mood, a cosy fits. I read Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel and thought it was great fun. Can’t say I’d want a steady diet of that sort of thing though.

  1. I sounds interesting, I like when characters change in crime fiction series.

    ” Guerrieri isn’t playing the role of an investigator.” It depends on the judicial system, I suppose. In France, the investigation is lead by the Parquet, I think, not by lawyers. (that’s American) Perhaps it works the same in Italy.

    • I could imagine, you would like this. The thing is that the Italian legal system seems to be heavily influenced by the American. The book is very realistic, he doesn’t stretch the boundaries but it is unusual. No one asks whether there is a motive. They assume it was sexual but there is no evidence. And that’s that. The book focuses on proving the innocence not on finding a culprit.

      • No, that’s not me. I don’t know it.
        The only crime series I’ve read are by Anne Perry, Elizabeth George and Steven Saylor. I’ve read a few Tony Hillerman too. And I’ve started Chandler last year.(I mean crime series with heroes who change and aren’t frozen like Miss Marple or Poirot)

        I haven’t read many French classic crime fiction like Leo Malet, it’s linked to old TV series in my mind. I can’t think of Nestor Burma without seeing Guy Marchand.

  2. This does sound very good. The legal crime fiction I like best is by Sarah Caudwell, but it’s completely different to this book – funny and witty and often padded with classical allusions. But I like all sorts and will look out for this author.

    • I would say it is one of the most philosophical thrillers I have ever read and there is a distinct spiritual dimension in it. Guerrieri’s development reminded me a lot of the development you undergo when you start to meditate and become more conscious. But there is no preaching at all. In this regard it is a masterpeice of “show but don’t tell”. Either you get it or you don’t. The novel works anyway. I will have to look up Caudwell. I like all sorts too. Guerrieri is also a character that overcomes gender boundaries. A complete being, so to speak.

  3. I have read many legal thrillers but discovered that many are very similar and either the characters or the plot aren’t often fully developed. I’m always interesating in finding good legal thrillers and this definitely sounds like one. Guerrieri sounds like a fascinating and real character. I also like the themes included in this book.

    Thank you for your review. I’m going to look for this book!

    • You are welcome and thanks for visiting. I can really recommend it. Guerrieri is a very special character. The themes are interesting too. I didn’t know anything about the Italian legal system but have a feeling I know much more now. I’m curious to see what other themes he will choose in the next book and what becomes of Guerrieri. let me know what you think of it, should you read it.

  4. I’ve seen this author around but legal thrillers don’t usually appeal to me as much as regular crime stories. I do like the sound of this one, though, so I am going to add it to my next Amazon order! 🙂 Have you read Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent? I read it ages ago and it was a total page turner!

    • I hope you will like it. I lthink it is very special. Guerriri is such a great character. I already ordered part II and III. I need to look up your suggestion. Thanks!

  5. You are not familiar with legal thriller? have you ever read books by John Grisham? i think his books are considered as legal thriller.

    I really like some of his works.

    Another great review that I enjoy a lot.

    • Thanks, Novroz, I’m glad to hear it. You are right, of course, John Grisham, but I have never read anything by him. I saw some of the movies though. Which one would you recommend? I think he wrote a lot, I wouldn’t even know where to start.

      • I read his old books, they are quite good. I haven’t read any of his new ones yet. There are 2 that I like the most, the Chamber (very thick, about 900pages) and A time to kill. the Chamber involves a lot of emotions, there were times I was encouraging them to gas him but there were also times where I was feeling sorry for the man that about to be gassed. A time to kill has been made into movie with Sandy as the leading actress.

        • I saw other movies. 900 pages is a bit off putting… I will have to look at a A Time to Kill. I haven’t seen the movie. I thought I have seen all of her movies, I like her a lot.

  6. I recently began what seems like it’s going to be an engrossing nonfiction book on the mafia, Caroline, and one in which the true details are sometimes reminding me of a Sciascia novel. Pretty scary actually. In any event, I’m excited to learn about this new-to-me author from you and will keep an eye out for titles by him at some point.

    • I got some Sciascia books since your last review and really want to read them. Carofiglio could write a nonfiction book as well, I’m sure. I hope you will review that book on the mafia, I certainly wouldn’t mind reading a good book. There are so many, one is never sure what to get. Carofiglio is worth keeping in mind if you go for thoughtful crime novels.

  7. I have this one, oddly enough both in English and Italian, but haven’t read it yet. The Italian edition is very well put together, a really beautiful little book.

    I’ve heard nothing but good about it and it’s definitely on my to be read pile, but not for any time soon sadly. Sciascia I haven’t read either but I understand is both more ambitious and more literary (not knocking Carofiglio there, but it’s my impression). That said, Carofiglio is clearly one of those crime writers who use the genre to investigate more than crime.

    On Grisham, it’s nice he has his fans but I seem to recall reading one and I doubt you’ll be among them. He’s not a subtle writer.

    • Yes, I suppose Sciascia is more literary. I hope to get to him sooner than later but Carofiglio’s main character was such a rounded person. I haven’t come across many like him in novels. A bit like the one in Erri de Luca’s book Tre cavalli that I reviwed a while back. I was never too tempted by Grisham. If he is anything like Dan Brown… I really hate Dan Brown.
      I think it would be worth reading Carofiglio in Italian and since you have it anyway. I’ll be ineterested to see what you think of it but it seems I will have to be patient…

      • I missed that you’d done a de Luca. I’ll have a look at that.

        Grisham to me is in the Brown territory. I don’t actually criticise these books as books, you just plain don’t get that kind of success without doing something right, but they’re not me.

        • I think I reviewed it last year. I agree about Grisham. Maybe I wouldn’t mind him as much as Brown but usually I find these type of books boring and, yes, not subtle.

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