Requiem in La Rossa by Tom Benjamin

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I saw ads for this book a few times and in the end couldn’t resist buying it. I enjoy a good crime novel occasionally, but it was the setting in La Rossa – Bologna – that caught my attention. When I went to Bologna back in 2014, I fell in love with the city – not just for its famous food but its beauty and atmosphere. This book seemed a good way to revisit it, albeit it in a rather more grisly way than anything I encountered while actually there!

Requiem in La Rossa is Tom Benjamin’s third novel (the first two are now ordered!). Benjamin grew up in north London, worked first as a journalist and then became a spokesman for Scotland Yard before moving to Public Health where he led campaigns against alcoholic abuse and a drugs awareness programme. Thus he has all the right credentials for much at the heart of this novel. But equally crucially, he actually lives in Bologna and knows every alley, cafe and park and gives us a glorious immersive experience of this beautiful city.

Bologna’s university is the oldest in the world, founded in 1088. The novel explores Bologna’s cultural life, focusing on particularly the music and educational history with a wonderful splash of art, as English private detective, Daniel Leicester, describes the work of his artist girlfriend, Stella. There’s a great section where he explores the art installation Stella has set up in the university: ‘Stella had created paths between an Aladdin’s cave of junk in her first Room – piles of plates, boxes of cutlery … Across the walls, those old paintings she had discovered: tower blocks drove into orange skies … the very fabric of existence was about to shatter against the insistent strain of the future.’ Clearly, Benjamin would be the ideal person to have with you next time you find yourself puzzling over installations in an art gallery.

But of course this is essentially a crime novel and thus we must expect violence and intrigue – all the tension heightened by the backdrop of a sweltering hot Bologna in summer and a series of earthquakes that set the city shaking and rumbling, almost in response to the crimes stalking its most revered quarters. We encounter brutal murders, puzzling poisonings, jealousies and bribery. Even the life of our ‘hero’, Dan, is threatened and perhaps more alarmingly, that of his 15-year-old daughter Rose.

When a professor of music drops dead leaving an opera, after being apparently threatened by an old student, Guido Delfillo, now a drug addict, Daniel – part of a family firm of private eyes; his late wife’s family – is hired by rock star Vesuvio to clear the young man’s name. Delfillo, once an exceptionally talented young musician, was rejected by the university, despite his huge talent, which led to his downfall, and then by Vesuvio. Vesuvio now feels guilty and wants to help him. It looks as if the professor was poisoned but it seems impossible for Daniel to prove this as none of the usual poisons can be found during the post-mortem. Meanwhile, another student, who was around at the time of the death and seemed to be putting something in the professor’s drink – caught on cctv – is found hanged. Suicide or murder?

Daniel has also been hired to follow an adulterous wife – the kind of stuff we imagine private eyes spend most of their time doing – and while there seems no link at first to the professor’s death, one dramatically and violently appears.

The story is very complex, with lots of twists and turns that keep you constantly questioning and guessing. Daniel frequently finds himself at odds with the local police in his quest to get to the truth and at one point, even his father-in-law, also part of the business, questions whether he’s taking things too far. But we are also drawn deeply into Daniel’s personal story: his wife’s death, his 15-year-old daughter Rose, the doubts and insecurities about his new relationship with Stella. There are a host of great characters, all brilliantly drawn, making this a richly engaging read. And all the while, we are taken down roads you can look up on a map; highlights of Bologna that I’ve visited and you could too. And of course the food – this is Bologna after all: crescetine – fried dough folded like a pancake and containing a choice of savoury fillings and coffees like caffe lungo and caffe shakerato – espresso poured over ice to cool you in the hot weather.

The twists continue until the end and even when you think it’s almost over suddenly a shocking twist sends rumbles through the pages, much like the aftershocks of the earthquake hitting the city.

This is a beautifully written, intelligent crime novel, which is so much more than just a story of crime but offers us a host of characters we want to know more of and a setting that is irresistible.

If you want to read more about my time in Bologna, take a look at my Travel & Food blog – click here.

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