Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista
Copyright 1991 (Bitter Lemon edition, 2004)
Bitter Lemon Press
Holy Smoke is a terrific little (200-page) mystery that works on several levels. On its surface, the book is about the amusing adventures of a man who inherits a vineyard – and a world of problems. On another level, it is about someone in search of a home – a Frenchman of Italian descent who cannot escape his roots. It is a tribute to author Tonino Benacquista that the book succeeds on both levels.
The novel opens with our hero, the Italian Frenchman Tonio Polsinelli, running into Dario, a friend from the neighborhood that Tonio left many years earlier. In fact, the reader learns that Tonio has spent his life trying to escape the old neighborhood and its Italian-immigrant residents. Tonio wants to be a “real” Frenchman and sums up his feelings on the old neighborhood in the following passage:
“God, you suburbs are depressing. You’ve got nothing going for you. There you are with your eyes turned towards Paris and your arse towards the countryside. You can only ever be a compromise. You’re boredom incarnate” (page 53).
Tonio agrees to write a love letter to Dario’s French girlfriend (because Dario’s French is too poor for him to do it himself). When Dario is murdered, Tonio inherits the Italian vineyard that Dario has recently purchased. Fate, then, draws Tonio into Dario’s world and back to Italy.
Of course, Italy is the last place he wants to go. Even worse, the village in which he finds himself is his family’s ancestral home. Once there, all sorts of misadventures ensue; Tonio eventually runs afoul of the mafia, the Vatican, and the townspeople. (Ironically, the townspeople now consider him to be French, which perhaps sums up the immigrant’s dilemma of being stuck between cultures).
Benacquista paces the story well, it never bogs down. He also interjects little bits of sardonic humor that sneak up on the reader. (Of one Italian-American gangster, Benacquista writes “He was amazed that you could get good pizza in Italy too, only not so good as at home”). A subplot develops the “searching for roots” theme by tying Tonio’s current search to his father’s past in World War II Italy. Though the subplot meshes with the book’s theme, it made things fit a little too neatly for my taste.
I am ambivalent about Holy Smoke’s final chapter. Benacquista could have omitted it with no loss, but he decided to end with a literary flourish. Perhaps it’s a brilliant stroke, or perhaps it’s another case of a writer not knowing when to quit – I’m still not sure.
As a rule, I am skeptical of any mystery that aspires to be “more than a mystery.” Most authors of such books seem to view mystery writing as “slumming” and – as a result – their books fail on both levels. Holy Smoke is a happy exception to that rule.