Blood on the Altar: In Search of a Serial Killer, by Tobias Jones, Faber, £16.99, 309 pages
The Italian patriots who fought for unification in 1861 came mostly from the prosperous north; annexation with the disease-ridden south was tantamount to “getting into bed with a smallpox victim”, in the words of one Turinese grandee. Even today, northerners talk of the south’s mountainous Basilicata region as a quasi-African outpost where Europe finally ends. Basilicata was immortalised by Carlo Levi in his book Christ Stopped at Eboli. Exiled to the region in 1935 on charges of anti-fascism, Levi’s book describes a malarial backwater far removed from the gracious suaveness of his native Turin.
Tobias Jones, in his non-fiction account of a murder in Basilicata in the early 1990s, shares Levi’s view of a “primitive” region untouched by modernity. “Part of the charm of coming here,” he says, “is the simplicity.” Levi had known Basilicata 70 years ago, when the inhabitants were viewed as uncouth, pre-Christian peasants. Italy has changed since then and Basilicata is no longer the land “forgotten” by time that Jones would have us believe. Mel Gibson chose to film The Passion of the Christ there; the region’s red wines are available at Waitrose.
Nevertheless, parts of Basilicata radiate an air of mystery and disquiet. On Sunday September 12 1993, its unlovely capital of Potenza made national news when a teenage girl, Elisa Claps, went missing there after mass. Suspicion fell on Danilo Restivo, a strange local boy who was known to have a fetish for cutting locks of women’s hair in cinemas and on buses. When questioned by police, he contrived a plausible alibi and explanation for the fresh wound visible on his left hand. In spite of the evidence against him, the well-connected Restivo managed to evade conviction for 16 years. Claps’ outraged family were treated with condescending regality, if not contempt.
As the search continued, few in Basilicata doubted that Restivo was being protected by the bribery culture known in Italy as la bustarella (the little envelope). Even church authorities refused to co-operate with inquiries. Italy’s dietrologisti (literally “behind-ologists”) began to insist that cliques and shadowy cabals were manipulating the truth behind the girl’s disappearance. Sightings of her were reported from as far away as Yemen; false leads and attempted extortions further muddied inquiries.
By 2002, Restivo had moved to Bournemouth, south-west England. In November that year, his next door neighbour, a 48-year-old seamstress named Heather Barnett, was found murdered and mutilated with strands of human hair placed “symbolically” in both of her hands. In 2010, meanwhile, Claps’ decomposed body was at last found in Basilicata. Forensic tests established that she had also been mutilated and possibly abused sexually; strands of hair were found to be present at the murder scene. The police in Britain now surely had their man. During Restivo’s trial at Winchester Crown Court, a total of 13 women from the Bournemouth area came forward to say their hair had been tampered with by a strange-looking man on a bus. Finally, Claps’ family was to be relieved of their torment at having to live without justice.
Blood on the Altar is a gripping if at times rather drawn-out book. Jones plumps out his account with descriptions of Basilicata’s ancient Greek temples and the cave-like dwellings at Matera. Admirably, however, he uses the Elisa Claps case to illustrate wider social problems in Italy, such as a deepening political unease and a mafia-style culture of entitlement.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi’ (Vintage)