Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly email about things I’ve read

An almost insignificant figure: Jonathan Holt’s Carnivia trilogy

The Abduction cover image

Towards the end of the first book in Jonathan Holt’s Carnivia trilogy, a US mercenary who had fought in the Bosnian war of the 1990s whispers into the ear of Capitano Katarina Tapo of the carabinieri:

“… It’s beautifully simple, really. There’s no sweeter feeling than having the power to do whatever you want to another human being.” He tucked a lock of her hair, almost tenderly, back behind one ear. “Unless it’s doing what you want to an entire country, like we’re doing to yours. Once you’ve tasted that, it’s kind of hard to go back.” (Chapter 73; ellipses added unless described as original)

These are almost his last words. Much later, towards the end of the final book, a retired CIA officer named Ian Gilroy confirms that by “your country” the mercenary, Bob Findlater, had meant Italy, and not just (as Gilroy had previously argued) Bosnia. Gilroy added:

“A purely honorary title. My predecessor, Bob Garland, was the first Caesar, I was the second. Italy has had sixty-two official governments in seventy years, but only two real rulers. You’ll be the third.” (The Traitor, p. 376)

These are not quite his last words, but they seal his fate. The person to whom he was proposing to hand over the role of “Caesar” did not accept, but instead ended up being charged with Gilroy’s murder, as well as espionage and accessing classified information without authorisation (p. 403). It was Gilroy who had killed Findlater in the first book.

Libidinal frenzy, precursor to genocide

These three books recount a complicated saga of interconnected stories. The first, originally published under the title The Abomination but later renamed The Boatman, tells of underground Catholic women priests (who have an arguable claim that their ordination is valid even though it’s in breach of Church rules), the trafficking of Croatian and Bosnian women into Italy where they’re forced into sex work, the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, and allegations that rogue — or possibly not — elements in NATO and the CIA deliberately fomented ethnic and racial tensions in the former Yugoslavia to provoke a genocidal civil war and make the region easier to control.

Bob Findlater was working for a “defense” contractor named Military Capabilities International (MCI) whose drones repeatedly attempt to kill Kat Tapo and her (eventual) friend Holly Boland, a second lieutenant in the US Army, first in Croatia and then in Italy itself, to stop them from uncovering MCI’s involvement in Bosnia. When Gilroy shot Findlater, he was about to rape and then kill his own daughter, who had been conceived when he was directing and helping Croatian forces in the systematic rape of Bosniak women.

Extraordinary rendition

The second book, The Abduction is perhaps a bit neater in terms of plot. It involves Italian protests at the extension of an already huge US military base in the Veneto, the discovery of the body of a wartime Communist partisan who had been shot in a kneeling position, a vast, underground US renditon camp on Italian soil, with drug trafficking as a sideline. The main element of the plot, though, concerns the kidnap of Mia Elston, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a US Army major.

The kidnappers claim to be protestors against the extension of the military base. They’re not demanding a ransom but rather a referendum on whether work on the base should be halted. In the meantime, Mia will be subjected to the kind of “enhanced interrogation” techniques that the US insists are “not torture”, including stressful standing, waterboarding and sensory deprivation.

The investigators are puzzled because the kidnappers seem too organized and disciplined for a local protest group. It turns out that the people really behind the abduction are the soldiers who run the rendition camp. Mia’s father, Major Elston, is attempting to blow the whistle on the “drugs for detainees” scheme — more because he hates drugs than out of any objection to rendition — and her abduction and torture are meant to put pressure on him to keep his mouth shut. It’s striking that the kidnappers seem to want to expose the fiction that waterboarding and the other methods are merely enhanced interrogation, but it seems that these soldiers are proud of the fact that they don’t stop at torture, and they want this to be widely known.

Then fall, Caesar

In the final book, we’re back to a tangle of many narrative threads. There’s a young Libyan hacker who wants to crash a cruise ship — they’ve been described as floating skyscrapers but Kat thinks this one is more like a floating city — right into the centre of Venice, where its gas oil fuel would combust. As Gilroy tells Holly:

“Venice will burn, I imagine. But is that such a terrible thing? The place is sinking anyway. Don’t worry, we’ll help them rebuild it. Only this time it’ll be six feet above the water level, there’ll be proper sewers, fire exits, service roads … For the first time in ten centuries, it might actually work.” (p. 375; emphasis and ellipsis original)

He expects the death toll to be a few thousand, which seems on the low side when you take into account the number of passengers on the ship and the daily influx of tourists to the city.

“If you look around the world right now — at Syria, at Lebanon, at almost any African country — that’s an almost insignificant figure, although the fact that this conflagration will headline every news channel across the world will make it seem so much more important. I’m not defending it, Holly. The decision not to give the Italians more details of the attack was the wrong one in my opinion …” (p. 375)

Tareq, the hacker, thinks he is being backed and bankrolled by fundamentalist holy warriors but he has been deceived. The person responsible for recruiting him is the Count Tignelli, an admirer of Napoleon, whom he describes as the liberator of Venice. Tignelli wants Venice to break away from Italy, while making himself even richer in the process by tanking the euro. If that works, he will clean up on some currently worthless credit default swaps that brought down a bank that he subsequently acquired cheaply. Tignelli intends to avert the cruise ship attack on Venice, giving the separatist movement an irresistable boost. But Gilroy has Tignelli killed before this can happen. Luckily Kat Tapo is smart enough to have figured out what Tareq’s intentions are. She still has to find him.

So, you’ll see that the trilogy mixes together a collection of plotlines that range from the implausible but entirely possible, through the all too likely, to the extremely fanciful. Trying to keep track of which element is which induces a sense of disorientation that I find at once amusing and exhilarating. An example of the third category is the episode where one of the three central characters, Daniele Barbo, manages to prove P=NP, thus enabling him to break the encryption on his own site, Carnivia.

Carnivia is a kind of virtual Venice which Daniele built years before. It’s said to replicate the real Venice in every last detail. People’s avatars wander around it, masked and interacting with each other using the reputedly unbreakable encryption. It provides the platform on which the women priests in the first book communicate with each other undetected. It’s where the kidnappers in the second book post their videos of Mia being waterboarded. It’s where Tareq gets access to millions of computers to infect them with a worm and create an enormous botnet. That botnet is set to attack technology all over Italy to coincide with the demolition of Venice.

When Daniele finds out about Tareq’s worm he decides that he has no choice but to wipe all the computers connected to Carnivia, though that will make him a figure of hatred among all the users of his site. At the last minute, he thinks of an alternative: to break the encryption that everyone — starting with himself — believes to be unbreakable, by proving P=NP.

Now, this is preposterous in the extreme. P=NP has remained unproven since it was first formulated in the 1970s. An increasing majority of scientists and mathematicians believe it is untrue (so obviously unproveable). But even if Daniele could have proven it, there’s no reason to believe that that fact would have helped him to defeat the site’s encryption in a short period of time. The computer scientist Donald Knuth says:

I don't believe that the equality P = NP will turn out to be helpful even if it is proved, because such a proof will almost surely be nonconstructive. “Twenty questions for Donald Knuth

At best Daniele would have proven that it is possible to find the key in polynomial time, but it’s vanishingly unlikely that he would actually have found the key! But let’s assume for the sake of the story that Carnivia’s encryption has indeed been unlocked. Daniele discovers a lot he didn’t know about the operation of the site, including the fact that the NSA was well on the way to compromising it even with the encryption in place.

He tells Holly that he destroyed the proof:

“It would have meant a world without secrets. A world where everything that is mysterious, or complex, or creative, could be replicated by a piece of software. I decided I didn’t want to live in a world like that after all. (p. 403)

When he was seven years old, Daniele had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades, who cut off his ears and part of his nose because his parents were slow to pay the ransom. When he went to see the only surviving kidnapper in prison, she told him that Gilroy had been running her. It had been the CIA man who had told her to mutilate the boy. Gilroy was a friend of Daniele’s father and was at the same time advising him. He became a trustee of the father’s foundation and was living in the family villa after the father’s death, while controlling Daniele’s finances.

No wonder Daniele neither liked nor trusted Gilroy. The Red Brigades prisoner told him:

“He arranged for us to receive explosives, guns, information on possible targets … But I also started to notice how operations that we hadn’t carried out were being attributed to us as well. Sometimes because it turned out we were all using the same batch of explosive.” (p. 341; emphasis and ellipsis original)

Daniele answers:

“He was bolstering right-wing terrorists with one hand, and left-wing terrorists with the other. Infiltrating both sides — not to bring them to justice, but to coordinate the terror. And if people ever started to work out what was going on, he had a convenient screen to hide behind. Gladio. A NATO network gone rogue. Nothing to do with the CIA at all.” (p. 341)

With their big, complex plots, these three books have many villains, mostly fictional but in some cases versions of people who actually lived. In the second book, Gilroy tells Kat’s boss, a carabinieri colonel, that a Vatican official named Giovanni Montini authorized the murder of several Communist partisans by a parish priest in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and subsequently became a CIA asset. Indeed, according to the novel, he became a CIA asset because the CIA had evidence of his authorization of the murders, which it used as leverage. Montini was canonized — declared a saint — in 2018.

As we near the end of the various stories, it becomes increasingly clear that the biggest villain, the one behind much of the skullduggery, and at the very least benefiting from it, is the CIA. As I wrote when reviewing the third novel on Goodreads:

The overall theme of the trilogy is that Italy’s political dysfunction since the second world war has not primarily been a result of the interaction of organized crime, religious power-broking, and socio-economic tensions between North and South, but a deliberate policy directed by the CIA, who would rather see Italy ungovernable than governed by communists, even as the junior partners in a coalition.

It’s striking how small a role the Mafia play in these stories. When Kat’s lover, a brave and incorruptible but weary antimafia prosecutor, is blown to pieces in front of her apartment, his prosecutorial colleague treats the assassination as self-evidently the work of organized crime. Kat doesn’t believe it. The murder ultimately turns out to be Gilroy’s work. One has the impression that the Mafia are often used as convenient cover for the wrongdoing of other parties. This is the converse of the situation in Michael Dibdin’s Cosi Fan Tutti where apparent terrorism is used as cover for Mafia operations in Naples.

I’m guessing that these novels weren’t a big success when first published and that this partly accounts for the change in the titles of two of them. It seems to me that The Boatman is a particularly unfortunate choice, being indicative neither of the novel’s themes or subject matter. The Traitor has several characters to whom that label could be applied.

The author’s next book was published under a different pseudonym, J P Delaney, and sold well. I wrote on Goodreads:

Despite a preposterously contrived setup this is a lot of fun, with a meticulously constructed plot, and a variety of characters who are obsessive and/or narcissistic yet curiously appealing.

It was because of my enjoyment of The Girl Before that I began to read the Carnivia books which are also (in places) preposterous and (though not in all respects) meticulously plotted.

Editions: I’ve quoted the first two books from ebooks that I obtained from Apple Books, and the third from the Head of Zeus paperback, 2015.


This is the 52nd post in Talk about books, and marks the end of its second year. Next time, in two weeks, I intend to revisit Wuthering Heights, which I originally wrote about in my third post.


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