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Book Review: "The Master of Knots," by Massimo Carlotto

Newspaper: Echoes of an Empty Mind
Date: Jan 11 2016

“I think the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.” - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Massimo Carlotto is a master of the Italian Noir, and his characters occupy a special place in the pantheon of hard-boiled noir. One of his most popular creations is Marco Burrati (a.k.a. the Alligator), a once-blues singer and an ex-con, who now makes a living as an unlicensed private eye. Along for the ride are his two associates, Max the Memory, a ultra-left leaning ex-con who equally at home marching in the streets for a "better world," as he is with busting brains and bringing bad guys to justice, albeit his brand of justice usually involves more blood and less police; and Beniamino Rossini, also ex-con, and an active, aging gangster who is the muscle for their establishment.

The Master of Knots is a straightforward whodunit involving a missing S&M model (victim), her morally repugnant husband (client) and the titular master who takes special pleasure in torturing beautiful women, often to their death. Carlotto's structure for the story is very simple, perhaps deceptively so. For although he does not employ any plot-trickery (flashbacks, multiple PoVs, stylized text etc.) to move the plot forward, he does paint with a rich palette of characters and set-pieces that propel the narrative at a speed much faster than the Alligator's beaten-up Skoda Felicia.

The first and second acts in the story help establish the seedy world of S&M and Italian underworld with the help of a colorful supporting cast -- the client's mistress, other models and agents, two green-behind-the-ears Sardinian hackers, a variety of street informers from Rossini's network, a gangster imported from Miami, and a cop on a personal vendetta of his own. As our 'heroes' find more evidence of heinous crimes committed by this Bang Gang, they start transforming from detached professionals to vigilantes who will pursue every available avenue to bring the criminals to their end. As Rossini remarks, the end he has in mind is 'Second after second after second of pain and lucidity,' in the memory of the innocent women (and men) who have suffered at the hands of the Master. The action moves swiftly (and gorily) between cities, and the chase escalates to an unexpected third act.

Echoing Edwin Chapin's assertion that the best solution to revenge is to forgo a personal vendetta in favor of justice by "due-process," Carlotto's third act is an anti-climax that wraps up the perpetrator of the crime without the need for any undue violence. As befitting someone who has intimately experienced the horrors of a corrupt judicial system, Carlotto seems very inclined to spare his anti-heroes the same fate. Both Marco and Max firmly belong on the side of Light in this invisible line drawn in the sand, refusing to be dragged down to the Darkness that seems to be just a trigger-pull away. Ultimately, it is this struggle between the easily obtained solution, and the more uncertain, yet right alternative, that stays with us; rather than the sordid description of the crimes.