Review: River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi

In the Po valley in northern Italy it has been raining for days and the river is flooding. Among those watching the water during the night are members of a boat club who see the old barge owned by Anteo Tonna leave its moorings and weave it’s way down the river, though no one is sure if the old man is on board. At various bends and crossings along the river people try to make out who, if anyone is on board the boat but when it comes to rest they determine that the barge is empty. At the same time as this drama is unfolding Commissario Soneri of the Parma police is called to what is thought to be the suicide of an elderly man at a local hospital. However Soneri soon discovers this man, Decimo Tonna, is the brother of the missing boat man and, thinking this an unlikely coincidence, he links the two cases although this is not a popular move with the local magistrate.

River of Shadows has one of the most atmospheric settings I’ve read in a long time, with Varesi deftly painting a picture of the swelling river and the mixture of people living and working along it. I really did have a sense of being there. The opening pages which describe the deluge of rain and the pragmatic approach to it and the flooding river that the old timers have drew me in very quickly. I chuckled too at the conflict between those who had lived around and worked on the river for years and the bureaucrats from far away issuing edicts that no one would follow. I also liked that my copy of the book had a little map of the region and the towns mentioned as many books used to do and few seem to do these days. I feel like starting a campaign to bring them back though as I found it very useful.

The investigation, for Soneri really does treat it as a single case, did prove in the end to be interesting too, though I have to say I found the middle of the book a bit lacking in direction and it didn’t quite hold my attention as much as I’d have liked. Ultimately though the resolution is a satisfactory one, revolving around the volatile political past of the area and the long memories that some people have of such things.

Although I did enjoy this book I didn’t love it and I think the biggest reason for this was that I didn’t find the characters particularly engaging. Soneri himself seems cold and not terribly interesting. His only significant relationship is with a woman who likes to entice Soneri into having sex in dangerous places where they might easily be caught (and will never do it in a bed). But even this relationship is a very distant one and none of the other people depicted are any warmer or more engaging.

I enjoyed the atmosphere created by this book and the insights into human nature offered by the kind of investigation explored here. But in the end I thought the book, or its main character anyway, lacked whatever ‘x factor’ it is that draws me back to a series. I’m not suggesting I’d never read another book in the series, merely that I won’t be counting the days until a new release is available as I do with my favourite reads.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

River of Shadows has been reviewed at Crime Scraps and Euro Crime (By Maxine)

This is one of seven books nominated for this year’s International Dagger award for translated crime fiction which will be announced later this month. So far I have read Anders Roslund & Borge Hellstrom’s Three Seconds, Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Fred Vargas’ An Uncertain Place and am half way through Andrea Camilleri’s Wings of the Sphinx. I have Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore and Jean-Francois Parot’s The Saint-Florentin Murders on my eReader but am not sure I will get through them both before the award is announced.

Although I have read quite a few books set in Europe I keep forgetting to count them for the global challenge, so shall count this as the second European leg of my virtual tour.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Translator Joseph Farrell
Publisher Quercus [this translation 2010, original edition 2003]
ISBN 9781906694272
Length 259 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Commissario Soneri series
Source borrowed from the library

11 thoughts on “Review: River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this review. I’m actually glad you’ve jogged my memory about reading this one. I’d thought about it, and actually planned to read it, but then put it aside as to be honest, there were books I was much more keen to read. I still would like to give this a try, although I agree with you that I find it very hard to really enjoy a book if I don’t find the characters engaging…

  2. Yes, agreed. If a character isn’t compelling, it’s quite hard to find a book riveting or terribly enjoyable. I was trying to read most of the Dagger nominees, but I’d have to buy this one and the cost of it last time I checked was prohibitively expensive. So I don’t feel compelled to read it by the Dagger announcement and will just wait and hope my library gets it or that the price will drop considerably or that I can get a used copy.

  3. What an excellent review, Bernadette. You identify what I loved about the book (atmosphere of the river po) and what I thought did not work (protag and girlfriend rather cardboard). It’ll be interesting to read future novels in the series. I recently read another book set in the Po valley but very different – Blood Sisters (hersilia press). An interesting comparison.

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