A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #41:-
THE MASTER OF KNOTS by MASSIMO CARLOTTO
Orion hb, 184pp, £12.99 www.orionbooks.co.uk
This is the second outing for Alligator (real name, Marco), a former convict and blues singer who now owns a nightclub, but has a nice sideline as a freelance PI assisted by his friends, computer whiz kid Max and career criminal, but with a code, Old Rossini. They are asked by her husband, who is afraid to approach the police, to investigate the disappearance of Helena Giraldi, an S&M model who maybe bit off more than she could chew and ended up abducted by a client. The secretiveness of Italy’s S&M underworld poses a serious problem, with nobody willing to talk about what goes on for fear of tarnished reputations, but the trio persevere, eventually stumbling upon a trade in snuff films, with the Master of Knots and his gang murdering young women for pleasure and profit.
As thrillers go this is pretty much a by the numbers production, with the problem set up and then resolved in quick order, albeit delightfully so with a low key ending instead of the expected bloodshed. Its view of the S&M world is superficial compared to, say, David Lindsey’s Mercy, and is there, I suspect, simply for shock value, with no real insight into why people indulge in such practises, Alligator’s attitude being one of uncompromising disapproval.
Where The Master of Knots excels is in the characterisation and backdrop to the story. Just like his hero, Carlotto was the victim of a miscarriage of justice in his native Italy, wrongfully imprisoned and then freed after five years in gaol as the result of an international campaign for his release, events which obviously inform his writing. The interplay between the three leads, their larcenous camaraderie, built round the idea that even villains have a code of honour and know when to draw the line (seen most obviously in their lack of sympathy for the S&M world and hatred of the Master), and contrasting attitudes towards imprisonment has a depth the plot lacks. Carlotto is the real thing. He knows whereof he speaks, has associated with men very like those he depicts, and this is reflected in his writing, which bears the stamp of authenticity. In Alligator there is a tension between his need to do something to help others avoid the fate that befell him, an impulse that leads him into danger, and the equally strong desire for a normal life, to settle down, to make something permanent and worthwhile out of the relationship with his girlfriend Virna, an inner conflict that he finds hard to put into words.
There is a powerful political theme running through the novel also – at one point the young and idealistic Max goes away to join in protests at the G8 summit in Genoa and ends up a victim of deliberately engineered police brutality – with Carlotto tackling head on what he sees as the corruption at the heart of Italian political life, and this backdrop helps to anchor the novel in the real world, giving it somewhat more substance than your everyday tale of PIs. Admittedly there are moments when it feels very much like being preached at, with the characters mouthing the writer’s political agenda, but at the same time this is done so engagingly that it doesn’t really matter. Jean Genet The Master of Knots ain’t, but it shares something of his outsider perspective on society and is a well executed, thought provoking and entertaining novel.