Five men burnt alive. In the dog days of a searing August in Rome, a flat goes up in flames, the doors sealed from the outside. Five illegal immigrants are trapped and burnt alive – their charred bodies barely distinguishable amidst the debris.
One man cut into pieces. When Detective Inspectors Rossi and Carrara begin to investigate, a hitherto unknown terror organisation shakes the city to its foundations. Then a priest is found murdered and mutilated post-mortem – his injuries almost satanic in their ferocity.
One city on the edge of ruin. Rome is hurtling towards disaster. A horrifying pattern of violence is beginning to emerge, with a ruthless killer overseeing its design. But can Rossi and Carrara stop him before all those in his path are reduced to ashes?
I initially decided to write a thriller, or a crime thriller, as the case may be, on ‘Blue Monday’ in January 2014. Until then I had written poetry and short stories and had some success publishing in magazines but writing a novel was a new departure for me.
I had been reading some classics in the genre and enjoying the pure escapism. But then I began to wonder if it was something I might be able to do myself, as a challenge. I say escapism for a reason. Italy, where I have lived since 2001, was going through a rough period in terms of social problems, economic hardship, its growing involvement in the immigration crisis and the government of the day was not doing a great job.
There was the endemic problem of corruption as one scandal followed on the heels of another. Politicians were also playing the race card, and populism was on the rise. So things were tense but interesting, and I felt like I had material for at least a story or two.
Shortly after, I got my big idea, pretty much in a flash of inspiration, and I knew then where the book was going. I sketched out a rough framework, and as the pastime quickly grew more serious, I found myself with a novel that I had to finish.
The Inspiration behind Michael Rossi
I needed a central protagonist, and the name just popped out. Rossi is a very common surname, easy to remember and recognisably Italian to non-Italian audiences. I thought ‘that will do for now’ but it stuck, and I got to like him.
I wanted Rossi to be a bit of an outsider, a little detached from the wheeling and dealing and intrigue, yet knowing its workings. As someone who flirted briefly with the priesthood, he has a familiarity with the powers-that-be but distrusts big institutions and their motivations. He also has Neapolitan origins and, because of an Irish grandfather, is bilingual. As such, he doesn’t quite belong in Rome, but he possesses a certain fluidity and openness to ideas, which means he often sees the bigger picture. All of this gives him a certain superiority that can arouse suspicion and also lead to alienation, but it gives me plenty of plot lines to play with too.
Why Rome makes a good setting for crime thrillers.
The traditional and well-known backdrop provides wonderful depth of atmosphere with the piazzas and fountains, the style, food, and the street theatre but the less familiar parts of the city have an interesting noirish flavour too. There is bleakness and menace in the sprawling concrete suburbs and post-war developments and their inhabitants, which I also like to explore.
Rome is where our legal systems, our philosophy, ideas of beauty and ethics, right and wrong, all come from. With its government, the capital is the power centre of Italy where kingmakers and influencers and obscure forces play out their power games. It can seem very feudal; patronage is often still an effective reality, especially in the ever-present Church, a Moriarty-like character that always has a hand in whatever’s going down.
So there is an ongoing struggle to get close to that power, through favours and bribes, nepotism, and blackmail. And then there are those trying to fight all that, often with the odds heavily stacked against them.
Rome’s strategic position between east and west, Europe and Africa, and straddling the north and south of the country itself means there is a constant flow of influences and stimulating contrasts and compromises. NATO is here, there are US airbases, international NGOs, embassies, multinationals. The middle east, Israel and the Balkans are a stone’s throw away. Anarchism has a long history here; the city was something of a haven too for the PLO in the 70s and 80s. As such, it’s a kind of bridge across the Mediterranean on which you might run into anyone; in the books, they frequently run into each other, often with incendiary results.
Rossi and Carrara have to solve a particularly gruesome set of crimes that threaten the foundations of Rome and Italian society. Although set primarily in Rome, there is an international theme with terrorism at its heart. The killings are satanic in nature and like in the first book in the series ‘ A Known Evil’ you question whether the killers are different but connected? This story reads as a standalone but to understand what motivates Rossi and the character dynamics between him and Carrara and journalist Dario Iannelli I recommend reading ‘A Known Evil’.
The well-described setting betrays an intimate knowledge of Rome and its government that make the story believable. The cleverly orchestrated plot has many strands. Different stories explored and painstakingly woven together to solve the mysterious crimes before the city implodes. The politics, patronage and corruption that defines the city make Rossi and Carrara’s job both dangerous and frustrating, always wondering if they can find the guilty before they are sidetracked or stopped by the establishment. Detailed and lengthy this complex story’s pacing maintains the momentum and keeps the reader’s interest, the killings are graphic, but they underline the threat to the city’s population and give the story its menacing ethos.
‘ A Cold Flame’ has everything you need for a thrilling crime read, an enigmatic detective with a dark side and secrets, a set of complicated, horrific crimes and a powerful political infrastructure that thwarts their aims at every opportunity to find the guilty and punish them.
I received a copy of this book from Harper Impulse/ Killer Reads via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Aidan Conway was born in Birmingham and has been living in Italy since 2001. He has been a barman, a bookseller, a proofreader, a language consultant, as well as a freelance teacher, translator and editor for the UNFAO. He is currently an assistant university lecturer in Rome, where he lives with his family. His first novel, A KNOWN EVIL, was published on 5 April 2018 by Harper Collins ‘Killer Reads’. The second book in the DI Michael Rossi crime series, A COLD FLAME, is available as an e-book on 20 July 2018 and in paperback on 6 September 2018.