Any Human Face
323 pages • Picador • May 7, 2010 [PB]
As I observed in my review last year of Allan Massie’s Death in Bordeaux, of which this is somewhat reminiscent, crime thrillers are not really my thing. Any Human Face however, like Death in Bordeaux, is in another league.
Set in Rome between 1983 to 2008, with a flashback to 1960-1982, Lambert’s novel follows the fortunes of Allesandro (though he despises his real name, preferring Alex); Andrew, a second-hand Scottish-Italian book-dealer, and Jamie, whose real name is James Bond.
Larger-than-life characters such as the eccentric but motherly Birdman, who lives in a flat in the Piazza Vittorio where he feeds wild birds and takes them in almost as he does feral youths, and the monster of an ego art critic, Daniela dell’Orto, populate this novel. It is set in the seamier side of Rome, a gay and criminal demi-monde apparently at odds with the image of the Eternal City, the City of the Pope. But these two faces of Rome form two sides of the same coin and, as it turns out, involve some very unholy alliances indeed.
Starting with an unsolved abduction of a young girl whose father worked in the Vatican, compromising photographs surface years later which Andrew decides to exhibit above his bookshop with the help (if that’s the right word) of Daniela dell’Orto. When the bookshop is raided by a shadowy arm of the state, the photographs confiscated and Andrew whisked off and held at a secret location for interrogation, it becomes apparent that skeletons in closets at the very highest level of Roman society have been seriously rattled.
The characters are well-drawn and the narrative maintains a breathtaking pace, making it utterly gripping reading. It is also a dark, dangerous, brooding, and (perhaps because of that) very sexy novel. There are, though, some lighter moments and some delightful and really rather sweet relationships – and not just sexual ones but friendships too. The willing suspension of disbelief is also helped enormously by knowing that Lambert has lived in Italy since 1976 and is obviously steeped in its culture, both high and low, which is precisely where this electrifying novel lives.