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Written by Luca D’Andrea — It was back in 2017 that we first picked up the global bestselling psychological thriller The Mountain by D’Andrea . Sanctuary is another thriller with strong psychological overtones that may be a match for D’Andrea’s five-star debut novel. We are back in the South Tyrol on the doorstep of the Dolomites in 1974. Marlene Wegener, née Taufer, is fleeing her husband, Herr Wegener. She breaks into his safe, pockets some sapphires, leaving the wads of cash, and heads west. She swaps her little grey Fiat 130 for a Mercedes and roars off from the villa in the Passer, a river valley in Northern Italy. 

Herr Wegener is the son of a Nazi, growing up at the fag end of World War II as the Americans arrive. He soon established his own criminal empire and, with chutzpah and ruthlessness, attracted the eyes of the Consortium. He’s not a man to toy with, never mind betray. But Marlene has a deep and growing love for Klaus. It’s the trigger that sent her on her way. Herr Keller quickly realises he has been duped by his own wife and he sends an assassin, the Trusted Man, to take revenge. The Trusted Man, we never learn his name, is relentless, remorseless, an inexorable and irresistible demonic force. 

Simon Keller is a self-contained man living a frugal and isolated life in a small mountain hut, his maso. He looks after his pigs and nurses his own demons. He has an unusual history. He’s a Bau’r, like his father, Voter Luis. A Bau’r is a peasant but they are the model of self-sufficiency, knowing natural medicine, crafts and hunting. More than anything he has an intimate understanding of the mountains and he has a deep priestly faith. 

As Marlene escapes in the darkness of a Tyrolean winter she loses her way and crashes her car on a remote road. Keller rescues her, bringing her to the safety of his maso. It’s a primitive ascetic existence but Marlene understands Keller; although she has been living the life of a rich trophy wife she was brought up in poverty, feeding the chickens and doing the chores. She has to recover from her injuries but Keller has the skills and as he says in those first days, she’s strong for a city girl. 

And, so we have the story lined up and D’Andrea spins it into a fine thriller. There are twists in the tale but not outrageous, jaw-dropping clangers. Like the best stories they just serve to throw us into the story’s curves, accelerating the narrative, keeping it moving forward with momentum. The story doesn’t quite take the direction one might expect and D’Andrea plays heavily on fairytale folklore, Marlene’s most treasured possession being her copy of Grimm’s folk tales.

The translation is excellent with just the occasional odd phrasing but I suspect this relates more to the slightly antiquated nature of some traditional elements in the story rather than any failing on the part of translators, Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor. D’Andrea doesn’t stray into the lyrical, this is not John Connolly describing Maine but the writing is effective and inclusive. Perhaps more evident, rather than the actual geography which does feature, is the cultural landscape. The historical folklore is rendered in some detail and woven in. I found it enriched the story but it’s not your typical fare for a breakneck thriller and you might feel it drags on the action. 

In Sanctuary Luca D’Andrea has written an intense thriller with an atmospheric setting that, in some respects, defies pigeon holing into genre. There are familiar tropes here: the cold machine of an assassin, the callous and calculating criminal boss working for a sinister organisation. Yet, these don’t feel stale and D’Andrea has skirted the line between necessary tropes and dull cliché with considerable style. 

We’ve got plenty more Italian crime fiction and if you want more five star rural noir from around the world then try Scrublands by Chris Hammer or Bearskin by James A McLaughlin.

MacLehose Press

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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