The countless testimonials to human genius with which Rome abounded […] Credit for all of it, after all, belonged to sodomitic cardinals, brilliant murderers, cruel madonnas, liveried professional killers. Without murders, there would be no art, and without art, there would be no murders. Without evil, no goodness. Without goodness, no evil. In the end, everything boils down to this. The great questions of the Fathers of the Church that inexorably arise again and again, unaltered after millennia.
The Italian writers Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, an investigative reporter and a magistrate in their day-to-day, have co-authored a pair of crime novels inextricable from the city where they are set. The Night of Rome (La notte di Roma, 2015) and its predecessor Suburra (2013) are inspired by a real-life corruption scandal ripped from the Italian headlines. The Mafia Capitale investigation and its aftermath shocked the Roman populace, dominating the news cycle from 2014 to 2018. In this fictionalized version of events, a man known as Samurai sits at the center of a web of violence, drugs, dirty politicians, and prostitution.
A former fascist terrorist and gang leader, Samurai consolidated his power by being marginally more intelligent, disciplined, and ruthless than those around him. He is an opportunist who relies on charisma and Sun Tzu–like teachings to manipulate his young, exclusively male, followers. We are meant to understand that he is some kind of philosopher-criminal mastermind. But the criminals he surrounds himself with are little more than coked-up animals — a pack of rabid dogs driven by id. By the end of Suburra, he’s put most of them down, while raising others in their place.
Bonini and De Cataldo traffic in the kinds of male fantasies popularized by film and video game franchises like Fast & Furious and Grand Theft Auto. Scenes celebrating a culture of machismo, misogyny, and violence appear on almost every page; also beautiful women, drugs, expensive cars, and lavish parties. The crimes are for the most part victimless, in that the victims are usually willing participants who have committed the sin of being weak. These books are not for everyone, yet they do have a certain appeal. Antony Shugaar’s keen translation helps a lot. And, structurally, they are close to flawless. The first few chapters of The Night of Rome efficiently set up the timeline, taking readers through the events of a single morning. The novel opens at the climactic moment of the story and then rewinds to describe all the events which preceded and made that moment inevitable. It’s a familiar setup used by films and television shows to create tension. De Cataldo’s résumé includes television writing, and these books appear to have been destined from inception for the screen.
Suburra was made into a film for Netflix in 2015. Despite the screenwriting team, which included both Bonini and De Cataldo, playing fast and loose with character and plot details, it holds true to the overall spirit of the original. There’s also a prequel series, produced after the film, also by Netflix: Suburra: Blood on Rome; it was recently renewed for a third season. A critical darling that hasn’t entirely caught on with American viewers (probably because the actors speak Italian, so English viewers are left to choose between subtitles or dubbing), it has everything you’d expect in contemporary gangland noir: flashy violence, graphic sex, neck tattoos. Setting the series before the events of the film lets the writers introduce a younger and edgier cast of criminals; and work around the inconvenient fact that several characters who survive in the novel, and whose stories are continued in The Night of Rome, were killed off in the film.
You can read The Night of Rome as a stand-alone or as the sequel to the first novel. Attempting it with only the film as a reference is possible if you’re willing to accept the resurrection of a few key players. One character who survives both film and novel is Sebastiano Laurenti, a young man who finds himself the victim of his father’s poor decisions. Unable to pay back the money he owes to a trio of loan sharks known colorfully as the “Three Little Pigs,” the senior Laurenti kills himself and leaves Sebastiano on the hook for the debt. An arrangement is made in which Sebastiano becomes a kind of indentured servant to Manfredi Scacchia, a former classmate and the son of one of the pigs. Through Manfredi, Sebastiano will meet Samurai and eventually become his brooding protege. In The Night of Rome, set roughly five years after the events of Suburra, it is Sebastiano who assumes control as lieutenant and heir apparent to the sidelined Samurai.
Sebastiano rises to become “one of the masters of Rome” and the protagonist of The Night of Rome, but his power is borrowed, a classic Machiavellian scenario of conquest by fortune. When a member of Samurai’s network challenges him for leadership, Sebastiano realizes he must become one of those princes who, in the words of Niccolò Machiavelli, “know they have to be prepared at once to hold that which fortune has thrown into their laps, and that those foundations, which others have laid BEFORE they became princes, they must lay AFTERWARDS.” In other words, he must show he can defend the empire he’s been left. Sebastiano is the character with the most redemptive backstory, which plays out on the pages of Suburra. But in The Night of Rome, he is a compromised hero, willing to stand for an end regardless of what means he must use to achieve it.
His plans are complicated by a beautiful young politician, Chiara Visone, a character who appears to be a loose composite of two real-life Italian female politicians, one of whom is the current mayor of Rome. Chiara is the rare woman who has power in this troubling world where all women conform to some unflattering male stereotype. “Naturally beautiful and treacherous,” she emasculates men by emulating them. They hate her because she holds herself above them, and yet it is her agency which they find so irresistible. We’re deep into classic femme-fatale territory with Chiara, whose relationship with Sebastiano pulls her into his world.
But the old clichés are reinvigorated when set against the backdrop and spectacle of Pope Francis’s yearlong Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. This means lucrative construction and public works contracts are up for grabs to prepare the city for the influx of pilgrims. Two men are appointed to oversee the awarding of contracts: Adriano Polimeni, the aging politician who still holds to his ideals, and his friend Monsignor Giovanni Daré. Good men who stand at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from Samurai, Sebastiano, and their crew. The struggle between honesty and corruption provides a much-needed counterbalance to the overall cynicism of the writing.
Move past that cynicism (as well as the toxic masculinity), though, and what you find is a loving tribute to Urbs Aeterna — truly the Eternal City. The Rome of Bugatti motorcycles and Prada suits. But also of St. Peter’s Basilica and Machiavelli. Bonini and De Cataldo skillfully convey the ever-changing character of this place where “kings, popes, dictators and emperors have been hoisted high and knocked low in the time it took the breeze to veer.” One of the oldest occupied sites in Europe, it survived the empire it was once the center of and dates its history back to 753 BC. Today it is a modern city populated by neofascists and refugees. Where old communists rub shoulders with members of the populist Five Star Movement. And two popes, Francis and Benedict XVI, attempt to compromise a millennium of dogma with the material world. It is a Federico Fellini film set to a Benny Benassi soundtrack.
“Rome, the only place like it. Rome, city of the damned.”
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic and author of the blog Reader At Large.