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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Involuntary Witness

Gianrico Carofiglio

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Involuntary Witness

Title: Involuntary Witness
Author: Gianrico Carofiglio
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 274 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Involuntary Witness - US
Involuntary Witness - UK
Involuntary Witness - Canada
Involuntary Witness - India
Un témoin inconscient - France
Reise in die Nacht - Deutschland
Testimone inconsapevole - Italia
Testigo involuntario - España
  • Italian title: Testimone inconsapevole
  • Translated by Patrick Creagh

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing, but not quite enough story (and too many asides) to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/2/2007 Hannes Hintermaier
The Independent . 5/3/2010 Boyd Tonkin
TLS . 19/8/2005 Joseph Farrell

  From the Reviews:
  • "Carofiglios eigentliche Stärke ist das Gerichtssaaldrama; in dessen Regelwerk der Finten und Scharaden kennt er sich aus; hier gelingen ihm Dialoge, deren Raffinesse man leicht unterschätzt, weil sie so realistisch daherkommen. Seine miniaturisierten Psychodramen, die sich in Blickwechseln, in den Details der Sitzordnung oder in der Interpretation der Verfahrensregeln manifestieren, überzeugen.Und beiläufig gelingen dem Autor auch Nebenfiguren" - Hannes Hintermaier, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Few crime novels probe "institutional racism" as subtly, and enjoyably, as this one." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "There is no real inquiry or accumulation of clues by a tireless sleuth, and more than half the novel is taken up with courtroom cross questioning and addresses to juries. Patrick Creagh, normally a highly accomplished translator, has done a slighty sloppy job here." - Joseph Farrell, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Involuntary Witness introduces criminal lawyer Guido Guerrieri. He is in his late 30s and from Bari. While the novel does centre on one case he handles in which a Senegalese immigrant is on trial, accused of killing a young boy, it is a very rambling narrative -- part legal procedural, part description of a man who is modestly successful in his career but whose marriage has fallen apart and who feels a bit unfulfilled and without purpose in a system where at least some corruption is the norm (no one seems to give receipts for anything, for example -- to avoid paying taxes).
       The fairly short chapters describe various aspects of Guerrieri's life. There are the women he meets, ranging from a horrible one-night stand to the on-the-wagon alcoholic Margherita who has moved into his building and with whom he begins a deeper sort of relationship, as well as the wife he is separated from. There are short accounts of some of his other cases, and even just descriptions of his occasionally trying to get away from it all for a few hours.
       Guerrieri is image-conscious -- "The main thing is not to be seen ordering it" he says about decaffeinated coffee, sneaking to a "dismal bar five blocks away" to order it so that no one he knows will see him in the shameful act -- and Carofiglio uses the books and music they like to define some of his characters. But his narrator has a light touch, and the variety of material and characters does make for a fairly engaging read.
       Still, this is ultimately also a court-procedural, describing the legal case against Abdou Thiam, the Senegalese peddler who knew the young boy that was found killed. In a way, Involuntary Witness is very realistic, in that the actual (Italian) court proceedings take up a relatively short time, are spaced out over a long time (the suspect has been in jail for over a year before it is over), and take up only a small part of the lawyer's time during that span.
       Carofiglio presents some of the peculiarities of the Italian court system well, and it certainly makes for an interesting contrast to American-style court justice. The first choice the defendant and his lawyer must make is whether to opt for a "shortened procedure", under which the judge:

basing his judgement on the documents provided by the public prosecutor, decides whether there is sufficient evidence to convict the accused. If he finds that such evidence exists, he finds the accused guilty.
       It amounts to something like plea-bargaining in the American system, the accused then guaranteed a shorter sentence than if everyone has to go through a (costly) full trial and he is found guilty. In Abdou's case the evidence is all circumstantial, but certainly sufficient to convict under the "shortened procedure" -- and even, quite possibly, at trial.
       Still, the court-procedural aspect of the book isn't entirely satisfactory. The evidence against Abdou is shockingly flimsy, but unlike your typical American thriller there's no private investigation to find another culprit and, if the murder can't be pinned on Abdou, the killer goes free. Some of the trial scenes are also decidedly off-point ("In actual fact these were pointless questions", Guerrieri himself admits after one page of questioning ...) -- procedure more important than substance (i.e. actually determining who murdered the kid) -- , and in the 'dramatic' closing arguments Guerrieri introduces evidence (in the form of claims about various studies of human behaviour) that, in every court we've ever heard of, would have to be introduced in the trial proper (so that opposing counsel could question its validity).
       Carofiglio writes agreeably well, and Guerrieri is an engaging protagonist, but it doesn't add up to quite enough. The personal side is done well enough, and the criminal case itself has all the elements of good drama -- murder, the possibility of child-molestation, questions of racism, the usefulness of eyewitness-testimony -- but Carofiglio doesn't make enough out of most of this.
       Involuntary Witness offers interesting insight into the Italian legal system (and the endemic corruption of Italian society), as well as a some decent characters and life-stories, but it's ultimately just not compelling enough. (Ironically, it is probably more realistic than most legal thrillers -- real-life legal resolutions are often unsatisfactory in this way, with lots of losers and no real winners, but this particular case could have offered a bit more.) It is a fairly enjoyable read, but simply tries to do too much..

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Involuntary Witness: Reviews: Other books by Gianrico Carofiglio under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gianrico Carofiglio is a prosecutor in Italy. He was born in 1961.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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