by Gianrico Carofiglio. London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2005. 274pp. Paper $13.95. ISBN: 9781904738077.

Reviewed by Christoph Konrath, Parliamentary Administration, Austrian Parliament. Email: christoph.konrath [at]


Of course, this book can be read as just another of the many (and very successful) Italian crime novels that keep you up and amused all night. It has all the elements that make Italian crime novels so special – from the allusions to ‘dolce far niente’ full of irony, to literary references, recipes for wonderful dinners and slight but thoughtful social criticism. But Carofiglio’s books have also been called roman noirs, psychological novels, Bildungsromane and love stories. The author himself would call them novels or stories of transformation. And while all these characterizations may be appropriate in part, I would like to add that his stories are also small parables on legal reasoning and legal practice, on prejudices and pre-judgments, on truth and truthfulness.

Gianrico Carofiglio is an Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor who made a name since the 1990s by arresting some of southern Italy’s wanted bosses and breaking up a number of syndicates. His novels are set in his native city of Bari where he still lives. So far, Carofiglio has published three books about Avvocato Guido Guerrieri, a defense attorney who might have been a poet in another life and who quite enjoys suffering from a certain sense of midlife ennui. But Carofiglio follows the themes of his novels in another genre, too, when he writes scholarly works on questioning and the psychology of witness accounts. It is quite interesting to see how he explores his thoughts and arguments on the philosophy of language and on psychology in literature and law and how they criss-cross and interrelate.

INVOLUNTARY WITNESS is Carofiglio’s first novel. It tells a story of Guido Guerrieri, a criminal lawyer, and of Abdou Thiam, a Senegalese peddler accused of the murder of a 9-year old boy. Both stories are neither spectacular nor extraordinary. While Guerrieri’s personal life is complex, his cases are, as a matter of fact, not – or so they seem at first glance. They are like cases any criminal lawyer or prosecutor will come across in the course of a professional career. The experience and stories of organized crime and mafia one might expect from an anti-mafia prosecutor remain where they obviously belong – in the day-to-day background. And they aren’t spectacular either, they are more of the usual small frauds, evasion of taxes, and handling of stolen goods or drug dealing. That’s just the daily nagging and boring routine. Guerrieri doesn’t enjoy his work any longer and he keeps wondering why he’s continuing as a lawyer. Apart from that he has to cope with being alone again after his wife threw him out and he experiences anxiety attacks and panic. In this situation, an African student comes to his office and asks if he could defend her boyfriend who has been accused of murder. She tells Guerrieri that she has [*311] chosen him as she had heard that he’s not like his colleagues.

Now, a story of pre-judgements and prejudices evolves. But the evidence seems to be clear: a nine year old boy disappeared one afternoon while playing football outside his grandparents’ house. Two days later an anonymous caller points out that the body lies in a well. There are no witnesses to the crime, but soon Abdou Thiam is identified as suspect. He’s a teacher who once came to Italy like so many others from Africa and who has to earn a living as a peddler on the beaches near Bari. There’s a great deal of circumstantial evidence such as a photo of Abdou and the boy and the fact that he owns a number of children books. And of course he has got himself entangled in some contradictions while he was questioned by the police.

For the police, for the court, for the lawyers he is just another African immigrant prone to be a criminal. Abdou is terrified but quarrelsome. He doesn’t make it easy for Guerrieri who is contemplating avoiding a process and going for a settlement. But while he is trying to put his own life back together, to find new perspectives, he starts to look at his work, the people he works with and the institutions he encounters from a different perspective. Here, Carofiglio sketches the mechanisms of judicial routines, the ideals long lost, the common prejudices, the concealment of corruption, violence and the underlying small-town racism of a society confronted with a hitherto unknown rise of immigration. Neither Guerrieri’s personal life nor his approach to Abdou’s case remain untouched by these developments. And Guerrieri soon finds out that he too has judged the whole situation prematurely. These changes and transformations are encouraged by the evolving relationship with Margherita, his neighbour, who has the carefree approach to life of someone who has been through a lot of suffering. And she is also someone who makes Guerrieri try to regain some of the ideals of his youth.

A closer look at the case reveals how vague the evidence actually is, and how Abdou might be just someone who has to stand in for the general nuisance of African immigrants. Thus, Guerrieri and Abdou opt for full procedure, to the astonishment of all others. The following and substantial parts of the book are devoted to courtroom scenes. But it’s not the usual courtroom and cross examination drama that is described. Carofiglio’s approach is more subtle and aims to describe a theory of evidence, the psychology of questioning, the mechanisms of prejudices and pre-judgments with literary means. Of course he does not (and does not want to) expound explanations or even theories, but he aims to pose some questions that are by no means common to crime novels. Questions that make me as a legal practitioner and teacher think again about my assumptions about the means, ends and ideals of law and legal practice.

At the core is the quest for truth and the possibility of acting truthfully. Carofiglio does not need spectacular, extraordinary cases or thought experiments to do so. He is one of those who manage to use the vernacular, every day experiences and impressions, events and actions that everybody seems to know just too well, to pose sharp questions and to reveal deeper insights. [*312] This is why I can recommend reading and discussing this book with undergraduate and especially with first year law students, maybe as a book to bridge the gap between their approaches and ideals and legal theory or as an introduction to some of the more demanding books discussed in this special issue. I see this gap when I have thorough theoretical discussions with students on the influence of prejudices on legal reasoning and when they fail to discern these influences once they are confronted with a ”real case”.

Also, the social criticism that is a vital element of many Italian writers tackles the question of legal practice and legal culture. Italy has much to offer in this field, as the judiciary has achieved and esteemed a rather strong sense of independency since the demise of the fascist state (and in opposition to an often corrupt and instable political system). But Carofiglio draws special attention to the fact that Italy has – unlike most other European countries – adopted the US-model of criminal procedure a while ago. Carofiglio respectively Guerrieri wonder, in how far it is possible to transfer such a model and to expect better results from it. I guess that he doubts that this is possible. He sustains his doubts describing the traditions and peculiarities, the common pride of the profession and the vernacular of the legal practice. Thus, Carofiglio’s books can draw attention to the social, cultural and political conditions of legal institutions and practice, as well. And, with a certain sense of irony, they offer a chance to reflect on the accounts of law and legal culture in popular novels and as part of a general sense of law and justice too.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Christoph Konrath.