(Editor’s note: The husband-and-wife team of Daniela De Gregorio and Michael G. Jacob, who write under the byline “Michael Gregorio,” first came to reader attention with the publication of their first novel, Critique of Criminal Reason (2006), an outstanding historical mystery featuring early 19th-century Prussian magistrate-cum-sleuth Hanno Stiffeniis. They went on to compose three other Hanno Stiffeniis novels, before introducing a quite different lead detective in Cry Wolf (2015), a modern-day Mafia thriller set in central Italy’s Umbria region, where the couple live. With their latest entry in that second series having recently reached North American bookshops, Michael and Daniela recall in the essay below how they were inspired to switch protagonists.)
Lone Wolf (Severn House) is the third novel featuring Sebastiano Cangio.
Few people know that there was a fourth book which started the whole thing off, a book that was based on a true story involving real people, though it was never published outside of Italy.
So, here’s what happened.
On the morning of October 23, 2007, we woke to find that our next-door neighbor had been arrested during the night as part of a spectacular operation involving more than a hundred armed and masked policemen, four helicopters and a dozen armored vehicles. A dangerous terrorist? Our neighbor was 20 years old, a philosophy student, a serious environmentalist. We had marched with him and other people in demonstrations against building speculation in Spoleto, the beautiful old town where we live in Umbria, Italy. Four of his friends had also been arrested that night during what was called Operation Brushwood. They were accused of terrorism, armed rebellion, and plotting against the State, and were taken into custody “before they could do any real damage.”
The arrests were front-page news in America, the lead story on Italian television.
We knew those boys, and we firmly believed that the charges were false. These “terrorists” were eventually tried on four different occasions, and the case against them was finally dismissed in 2014. The policeman who had ordered the arrests, a high-flying carabiniere (military police) general, had fitted them up “to further his own career,” according to the judge who acquitted the boys.
At the time, we were writing historical crimes novels for Faber and Faber, all featuring early 19th-century Prussian magistrate-cum-detective Hanno Stiffeniis (Unholy Awakening).
But one day, as we were following the court case against Carlos and his compatriots, a small Italian publishing house asked us if we would care to write a fictionalized account of their story. Our agent at that time advised us not to do it, but we went ahead and did it anyway. Their story just had to be told!
Boschi & Bossoli (translation: Bushes & Bullets) was published in 2012, but we kept back the foreign rights. The “novel” was our vindication of a situation of apparent political and social injustice. We were unable to prove that injustice then, though we were ultimately proved right.
We had already decided never to publish Boschi & Bossoli outside the borders of Italy. The tale was just “too Italian,” incorporating as it did political corruption, bent coppers, and innocent boys brought to trial to justify the construction of a concrete eyesore in the midst of so much beauty. The truth was uglier than any fiction.
Still, there was a story there—or the makings of a story at least. We had a rural setting, a situation of conflict. Trouble was, there was no real narrative, no plot development, no central character. “Not even a hero,” as our agent noted.
And that was when Seb Cangio suddenly came to life.
A park ranger with a dark past, born in Calabria, hiding out in London, England, on the run from the ’Ndrangheta—the Calabrian mafia—Seb returns to Italy when an earthquake hits Umbria. And he finds that the Mafia has got there before him. He also discovers that corrupt policemen will stop at nothing if there’s a career opportunity up for grabs.
We had a story, we had a setting. Most of all we had a hero.
The rest, as they say, is pure fiction.
We’ve been writing about Seb Cangio, the ’Ndrangheta, and Umbria ever since. ◊