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The pains in the ass of Rocco Schiavone

Aosta is a town of some 34,000 in the Italian Alps between France and Switzerland. It is here that deputy police chief Rocco Schiavone has been exiled from his beloved Rome after his sense of justice led him afoul of a high-ranking government official. Rocco does not care for the town and its environs. The town is boring, its citizens boring, its winters long and cold, and the rain and snow wreak havoc on Clarks desert boots, the only shoe he will wear. He goes through nine pair in the first six miserable months.

Rocco is scarcely more enamored of his colleagues. The police chief's distinguishing characteristic is his loathing for the press, which only ramped up when his wife dumped him for an editor at La Stampa. Officers D'Intino and Deruta are a pair of bumbling Keystone Kop types too dim to pick up on Rocco's disdain when he assigns ridiculous tasks to get them out his hair. They bristle only when ordered to report to the younger, less experienced, and most humiliating of all female deputy inspector Caterina Rispoli.

The deputy police chief's relationship with authority is contentious, adversial, problematic at best. Tact and diplomacy are not among his character flaws. He is resolutely grumpy, cantankerous, uncommunicative, and stubborn. His superiors put up with him because he gets results. Convoluted cases are seemingly resolved thanks to dogged efforts that typically stray beyond the bounds of propriety and acceptable, not to mention lawful, police procedure, only to leave him confounded by the nagging sense that he is missing something, followed by the inevitable face-palm moment when all becomes clear. Driven by a moral code that is idiosyncratic and deeply rooted, he is relentless in his pursuit of justice for the miscreants who blight his days while not above skimming a little off the top for himself and a favored subordinate when confiscating ill-gotten gains or using violence as an interrogation technique.

Life is a succession of pains in the ass that Rocco has catalogued and ranked. The list is long, its compilation an ongoing project. By way of example, losing your place in a book you're reading and blankets that come untucked from the mattress leaving your feet freezing on winter nights are pains in the ass of the sixth degree. Restaurants with slow service and wine connoisseurs are pains in the ass of the seventh degree. Receiving gifts and video poker games are pains in the ass of the eighth degree. Wedding invitations, attending a performance of folk dances, husbands complaining about their wives, and wives complaining about their husbands are pains in the ass of the ninth degree. Above all else stands "the very maximum degree of annoyance that life—that old bastard—could possibly stick him with to ruin his day and his week, [the one that] towered above the rest, unequaled: an unsolved case of murder," a pain in the ass of the tenth degree.

One thing alone enables him to endure life's swamp without blowing his top altogether. Upon arriving at the police station each morning, he goes to his office, closes the door behind him, opens the window for reasons that will become apparent, unlocks the desk drawer always kept locked, and retrieves the instrument of his morning prayer, the joint that will ease his troubled spirit and focus his thoughts on the case at hand.

Another side comes out as Rocco takes Rispoli and two other young officers, Italo Pierron and Antonio Scipioni, under his wing when they betray intimations of intelligence and competence. Italo he comes to think of as a friend, maybe even something of a protégé, cutting him in on a share of illicit gains and inviting the young officer to address him as "Rocco" when no one else is around. The friendship is strained, and Rocco's honor put to the test, when he finds that Italo has taken up with Rispoli after a romantic fashion, annoying because Rocco has had his eye on her.

Yes, Rocco has an eye for the women, and they have an eye for him. In his forties and presumably good looking, though I do not recall description of his physical characteristics, the deputy police chief manages to attract upscale women who are among the town's most enviable catches while going about his business in a blithely rumpled and generally uncompromising fashion. When the lovely Anna accompanies an invitation to a formal dinner party with the suggestion that he wear a black suit because black is elegant, Rocco replies that black isn't elegant, it's funereal, and he will come dressed as nicely as he knows how, which turns out to be his customary dark brown corduroy trousers, checked flannel shirt, V-necked light cashmere sweater, green corduroy jacket, loden overcoat, and the ever present Clarks.

The affairs go badly despite absolute honesty about his intentions, those intentions of course being the crux of the issue. He is up front that his only interest is someone to alleviate the loneliness, a sort of mutual aid society, a shallow, physical relationship that is hardly a relationship at all. Initially amenable, his paramours inevitably push for more, demand stability of some sort, and are treated shabbily in return.

Typical is the lovely Nora's text, innocuous on its surface, asking if he will ever spend the entire night at her place (he never takes a woman to his place), thereby steering the relationship toward a breaking point because Rocco was "perfectly fine with things the way they were. He didn't need a girlfriend. His girlfriend was and always would be his wife, Marina. There was no room for another woman."

Rocco's intermittent conversations with Marina are tender, moving, and progressively more haunting as the story that lies behind his torment unfolds and with it a deep complexity of character that compels this reader to care about what happens to him despite his hard-edged irascibility, temper, and ill treatment of others who do nothing to deserve it. There are times I want to cry out to him, turn on your phone, check your voicemail, return her call. Yet here and there come instances of what Wordsworth referred to as "that best portion of a good man's life / His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love." Underneath the multiplicity of mechanisms that protect him imperfectly from darkness and feelings that bring only pain lies a fundamental decency, however much he tries to hide it, from himself as much as from others. Is this enough to redeem him? Maybe that is not the right question. Maybe redemption is not something final that occurs once and for all, but like the catalogue of pains in the ass it is an effort in progress.

Antonio Manzini is an actor, screenwriter, and director as well as the author of four mystery novels featuring Rocco Schiavone. The tales move along at a nice clip more character driven than action packed. The qualities found in much of our favorite crime fiction are on display in first-rate fashion: good dialogue, characters, even minor ones, with a measure of depth and complexity, plots with surprising twists here and there, dramatic tension, and a healthy dose of cynicism leavened by traces of a romantic sensibility that surfaces from time to time. Rocco himself is the indispensable element. He ranks up there with the likes of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole, Ian Rankin's John Rebus, Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak, and the early Spenser back when Robert Parker was writing fiction before he took to cranking them out by the numbers.

I ripped through the four Schiavone novels (Black Run, Adam's Rib, Out of Season, and Spring Cleaning) in short order. I hope there will be more.

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