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INVOLUNTARY WITNESS by Gianrico Carofiglio: Book Review

This is a book unlike any other I’ve reviewed, or perhaps even read. Written by an “anti-Mafia prosecutor in Bari,” according to the book’s back cover, this award-winning novel has become the basis for an Italian television series.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s debut novel features Bari attorney Guido Guerrieri, a successful thirty-eight-year-old who accepts, if not with comfort, the Italian legal system that includes client retainers that don’t show up as income, biased judges, and malevolent police. He’s adept at getting his clients off, although he acknowledges to himself the pain of the victims as his guilty clients walk free.

As the book opens his marriage has just unraveled, with his wife of several years demanding a legal separation.  He has become “a mediocrity,” in her words, and her leaving sends Guerrieri into a year-long bout of insomnia,  panic attacks, and depression.  On the day of their separation, an African woman walks into his office with a retainer for him to use to free her friend, a Senegalese living legally in Italy.  Abdou Thiam, who makes his living selling counterfeit watches, handbags, and such on the Bari beaches, is accused of abducting and killing a nine-year-old Italian boy visiting his grandparents.

Circumstantially, the case appears strong.  The defendant admits to knowing the boy, saying they were friends.  He has a photo of the child in his apartment, has children’s books in the apartment although he has no child of his own, and has no alibi for the day of the crime.  Although the prosecutor doesn’t include it in his charge against Thiam, there’s a strong presumption of pedophilia underlying his case.

There are two types of trials in Italy, the shortened procedure or a trial in the Assize Court.  If a public prosecutor believes he has sufficient cause for a trial, he can go before a judge and request a shortened procedure in which the defendant is tried by a single judge who then decides his guilt or innocence.  No witnesses are called and usually the only evidence presented is that offered by the prosecution.  The advantage of this type of trial to the prosecution and the court is its brevity; it is much less time-consuming than a full trial at the Assize.  The advantage for the defendant, if he chooses it, is that his willingness for a speedy trial usually results in a significantly reduced sentence, as opposed to what he may expect if found guilty in the Assize.

But Abdou Thiam says that he is innocent and refuses to have the shortened procedure, insisting that he wants a full trial. In Italy that consists of a six-person jury and two judges.  The novel doesn’t explain what is needed for a guilty verdict.  Does it have to be unanimous or can it be a majority?  What if the jury votes one way but the judges vote another?

Involuntary Witness is definitely an off-the-beaten-track mystery, but if I explain why I will give away the ending. The book is almost more of a novel featuring a crime than a crime novel.  It gives the reader a deep look into the attorney’s life and the way the court system works, but it leaves unanswered many questions I wish it had addressed.  Since the book was written for an Italian audience, it assumes that its readers are familiar with that country’s trial system.  I would have appreciated a note somewhere in the novel explaining this and several other aspects of the courts.  But it’s a fascinating book regardless.

Finding information about Gianrico Carofiglio is not easy if you don’t read Italian. There is a very brief biography of him at