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Fitzgerald, Conor - 'The Memory Key'
Paperback: 320 pages (Aug. 2014) Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks ISBN: 1408843927

"You're not fish nor flesh nor fowl, Blume. You're not honest, and you're not corrupt; you're a commissioner but not a team player; your politics are undefined, as are your loyalties. I would be generous and say you're not a complete failure, but you’re definitely not a success..."

A railway station in Central Italy, 1980.
The waiting room is packed with people waiting for the Rome train. An attractive blonde heaves her suitcase onto the luggage table, politely rearranging the existing load of cases so that they remain at the front. As the train is announced and the waiting travellers start to gather themselves, she leaves the waiting room and quickly walks to a car and driver waiting on the forecourt. Her name is Stefania Manfellotto and she will marry the car's driver whilst they are both in prison. For - five minutes later - a powerful explosion demolishes the station waiting room and surrounding walls, pushing the newly arrived locomotive off the tracks and into the waiting crowd. No-one in the immediate vicinity of the blast survives.

Rome, present day.
Sofia makes her way to yet another appointment with the investigating magistrate. Six months ago she narrowly missed death. Crossing the university courtyard on her way to meet her cousin, she also crossed paths with an older blonde woman. A slight cracking sound made her look back. The woman lay on the ground with people running towards her. Sofia doubled back and looked down into the blonde woman's open eyes. Blood was trickling from her head and pooling in the grass. Eventually Sofia began to cry - and she is weeping again as she relives her testimony for the magistrate.

On a cold November evening, a month or so later, Commissioner Alec Blume is at home with Caterina and her young son when he is summoned to a crime scene by Magistrate Principe. Principe looks frail, shivering in the drizzle and darkness, as he watches the forensic team working around the body of a young woman slumped against a wall as though slouching. A young couple stand nearby, the girl's face buried in the young man's shoulder. She is the dead girl's cousin and the dead girl is Sofia Fontana. "A lovely girl," says Principe, "A witness to the Stefania Manfellotto assassination attempt"...

THE MEMORY KEY is the fourth in Conor Fitzgerald's crime series featuring American-born, naturalised-Italian, police detective Alec Blume - a stubborn investigator with a tendency to display the emotional maturity of a ten-year-old. Stefania Manfellotto, a right-wing terrorist tried and imprisoned for the terrible bombing of a packed railway station in 1980, becomes the victim of a murder attempt after her release. When a witness to that murder attempt is killed, it is thought to be part of a clean-up process. But if so, why kill the witness before finishing the job of Manfellotto, now lying helpless in hospital? True, Manfellotto's brain injuries mean she may no longer be considered a threat. But someone wanted her dead. An angry, bereaved relative of one of the bomb victims, perhaps? Or a fellow-fascist conspirator anxious to silence her? One thing you can count on - when Magistrate Principe asks his friend Commissioner Alec Blume to keep an eye on the case as a personal favour - Blume says no. But when everyone else tells him to stay out of it, after all it is not his case to investigate... Well, Blume is Blume, and he cannot resist looking into the shootings. However the consequences of this and his other decisions pitch him towards a future he hasn't taken the time to imagine.

Fitzgerald uses the theme of "memory" throughout this novel. Stefania Manfellotto's brain injury destroys her short term memory and traps her in the Italy of 1979 just before she carried out a massacre (modelled on the 1980 Bologna bombing). Several of the book's characters are involved in researching and formulating memory theory and Blume's own intermittent reading of a self-help book on memory improvement runs parallel with his investigations. Coming to terms with - and warming to - Alec Blume's awkward personality together with his reading choices can demand some commitment. But press on with THE MEMORY KEY and you will be rewarded, not just with the solution to the crimes, but with Fitzgerald's detailed and character-filled writing, his ruthlessly neutral observation of the shifting perspectives of "right and wrong" and an occasionally ironic view of crime and retribution. Ultimately, as the novel progresses, Blume's own personal life unravels with a suspense and speed that outdoes the suspense of the investigation. Be careful, as unlikely as it may seem, Blume can grow on you.

Lynn Harvey, England
December 2014

Lynn blogs at
Little Grey Doll.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 4/12/2014 19:50