Paul Adam is the author of eleven can’t-put-them-down thrillers for adults (in addition to three earlier crime novels, featuring investigative journalist Mike McLean) that cover topics from people smuggling, to genetically modified crops, cigarette smuggling in the European Union, Chinese oppression in Tibet, corruption within the Vatican, and the 21st Century surveillance society in which we live. In Unholy Trinity, Adams looks at connections between the Catholic Church and Italian neo-Fascist groups in a tale that London’s Literary Review thought would have appealed to Eric Ambler. Of his Flash Point, novelist Nelson DeMille blurbed, “Wonderfully plotted, fast-paced and refreshingly original.”
Two of Adam’s eleven thrillers, The Rainaldi Quartet and Paganini’s Ghost: A Mystery, feature violin maker, Gianni Castiglione, and his detective friend, Antonio Guastafeste. These Italian mystery-thrillers are set in quiet Italian city of Cremona. The first, The Rainaldi Quartet (titled Sleeper in England), is a murder mystery about the search for a long-lost, priceless violin, and Paganini’s Ghost also plunges readers into murder, mayhem, and musical history. “From the first stirring theme to the last fading chord, mystery fans and music lovers alike will be captivated by British author Adam’s excellent contemporary thriller,” declared Booklist of the first, while of the sequel, Publishers Weekly concluded: “Readers will find Adam’s full-bodied characters captivating but never transparent as the clever plot, enriched by meticulously detailed historical intrigues, builds to its satisfying conclusion.” I asked Paul if we could concentrate on those two books for this interview.
Paul, thanks much for taking part in Scene of the Crime. I’ve enjoyed your work ever since picking up Unholy Trinity. You put the reader right into the streets of Rome with that thriller. Let’s start off with a discussion of your connection to Italy and more specifically, Cremona, the setting for your two musical thrillers.
I became interested in Italy many years ago, travelling around the country as a student. I later also worked in Rome as a journalist. My interest in the city of Cremona came about because I’ve played the violin since I was a kid and I’m interested in how the instruments are made and in the history of the violin. It was this fascination with violins that led me to make the hero of a mystery novel a violin maker – or luthier. And because Cremona, home to Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati, has been the centre of violin making for centuries – and is still a city of luthiers – I knew I had to set the book there. I’ve written two books featuring Gianni Castiglione now and for each one I’ve gone to Cremona to research my locations accurately. I find this is something you can’t do through books or the internet. You have to actually go to a place and feel the atmosphere, smell the air and so on if you want to write about it evocatively.
What things about Cremona make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
If you want to write about violins, Cremona is really the only place to set your stories. It has this long history of violin making, of course, but if you go there today you can still find hundreds of luthiers working out of workshops tucked away in hidden streets and alleys. What I also like about it is that it is relatively unknown to most casual visitors to Italy, so its buildings and history aren’t familiar to them in the way that, say, Florence or Venice’s sights are. This means that there is a freshness and a novelty to the city that, I hope, readers of the books can enjoy.
Did you consciously set out to use Cremona as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I don’t think I set out to make the location a ‘character’, but I think if you describe the city/area vividly and with the kind of insight you’d want to apply to the people in your story, then the location will become a character. It helps if you write more than one book in the same setting, of course, because you can develop the location as you would a character.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I don’t overtly write about the location, but Gianni is such an integral part of his home city that the colour and feel of Cremona inevitably comes out in the course of the stories. Both the books in which Gianni stars also feature other parts of Italy – Milan, Venice, Lake Maggiore and many more, and I try to draw those locations as vividly as Cremona.
Gianni is a native of Cremona. He was born there and has lived there all his life. Now a 64-year-old widower with grown up children who have left the nest, his two great passions are his work and violins and there is no better city for that than Cremona. He loves his home and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
My novels haven’t been translated into Italian, so I’ve had no reaction from the residents of Cremona or from the residents of the other Italian locations I’ve also used in the books.
Of the Cremona novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I don’t have any favorite scenes, but I think the passage below gives an idea of how I like to combine descriptive writing with both the history of the city and the way it feels today.
“I sat on a bench under the trees in the piazza and watched the water dancing in the fountain in the centre of the square. Three hundred years ago this was the Piazza San Domenico. It had a church in the centre and a row of houses across the far side where Stradivari lived and worked. The houses and the church have long since been demolished, but there is a pinkish marble copy of Stradivari’s tombstone set amidst the flower beds. The original headstone is in the civic museum, but Stradivari’s bones have been lost. In one of the more shameful episodes in the city’s history, the great man’s remains were dug up and dumped in an unknown mass grave when the church of San Domenico was razed.
“The piazza is now surrounded by unprepossessing office buildings, many occupied by banks which can be guaranteed to suck the soul out of any area they inhabit. At one corner there is even a branch of McDonald’s, for the infamous golden arches have colonized our humble community too, though I notice – in an irony suitable for our times – that a McDonald’s paper cup is now the vessel of choice for every beggar on the street to hold forth for alms.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I’m not consciously aware that other writers have influenced me, but, of course, they must have done so. All the many books I’ve read over the years must have lodged tiny memories in my sub-conscious that I draw on without realizing it.
What’s next for Gianni?
I’m working on other books at the moment, but I’d like to write another Gianni Castiglione mystery. As with everything, it’s a question of finding the time to do it.
Thanks again, Paul, for taking the time to visit Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Paul Adam, see his home page.