Judith Sullivan is a financial journalist who lives in Leeds but hails from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris.
Bitter Remedy is a much better and more engaging book than it should be. The first few chapters were not promising with too much exposition, too much dialogue – just too darn much stuff. I was afraid the interesting elements of story might get lost in the words, words, words and more words.
But I got swept into the book, the weird world of Italo-American copper Alec Blume. It is a doozie. Blume is depressed, off work, on the outs with the mother of his child but still functioning (and driving) despite his prodigious capacity to ingest tranquilizers and booze.
The Bitter Remedy title refers to the nominal setting of the book, Villa Romanelli, a herbalist center cum rest home in central Italy. However, the centre and the nefarious activities that have sprouted like weeds around it are just one element of the plot. Also weaving its way through Blume’s story is that of two young Romanian women, Alina and Nadia.
Like so many, the two girls were lured under phoney pretences to Italy where a life of glamour, education and financial security awaited. Not so, of course. Nadia is linked to Niki Solito, the boyfriend of Romanelli boss and manager Silvana and he’s one nasty piece of work. A pimp, a trafficker, a criminal. The contrast between the (supposed) healthy, close to nature, restorative qualities of the Villa and the seedy, smoky, under-the radar world of Niki’s mini crime empire is nicely done, with the action flitting from the idyll of the villa to the Italian criminal fringes.
Told to leave the villa, which the authorities have supposedly condemned, Blume takes refuge in the nearby town, where he meets Nadia. Drugged out and irresponsible as a family man though Blume might be, he takes interest in Nadia’s plight and lifts himself out of his funk to help her seek her missing friend Alina. The Nadia-Alec interaction is one of the strong points of the book, a relationship of equals that is tender and smart and ultimately helps them both.
The other relationship Blume develops is with the small town around Villa Romanelli, lovely and poetic and quaint and an absolute hellhole from which he cannot escape. One of the funniest and most compelling bits of the book is when Blume discovers his Dorothy in Oz-like plight when his Alfa Romeo breaks down and he discovers, there are no buses, trains or taxis to get him out of the teensy little place. He is locked into the small town just as he is locked into his own depression and inability to act.
But act he does and he unravels not only the mystery of what happened to Nadia’s friend and also - as it happens - discovers a buried secret at Villa Romanelli, which goes some way to explaining the weirdness of all the people he meets there.
This is a strange novel, populated with strange, lonely, disconnected characters, with Blume as one the standout oddballs. But it works and we care about Nadia and we care about Alina and are actively rooting for them to get out of their dreadful life. I closed the book caring about Alec, as well, and looking forward to his next investigation.