REVIEW: ‘Accidental Pallbearer’ a page-turner with Italian notes

Jan. 12, 2013 @ 03:16 PM

“The Accidental Pallbearer”
By Frank Lentricchia (Melville House Publishing)

Eliot Conte is a complex and troubled man. A private investigator by trade, he also is a former adjunct professor and could-have-been Herman Melville scholar, and an aficionado of the great Italian operas. Conte also is divorced, estranged from his ex-wife and his two daughters, whom he left 20 years previously, and from his father, Silvio Conte, a powerbroker and kingmaker in northern New York politics.
In the opening of Duke University professor Frank Lentricchia’s new novel, “The Accidental Pallbearer,” Conte receives a message from California on his answering machine from Ralph Norwald, who married his ex-wife Nancy, stating that Conte’s daughters with Nancy, Emily and Rosalind, have been killed, and Nancy is a suspect. At the same time, his lifelong friend Antonio Robinson, who is the chief of police in Utica, N.Y. (Lentricchia’s home town and the setting of this novel), asks Conte to help him put the fear of God in Michael Coca, his assistant chief who also is a rogue officer. While returning on a bus from Albany, Conte also confronts a man, Jed Kinter, who is abusing his wife and baby.
Conte begins simultaneously working on the case of the rogue officer, while pursuing a personal vendetta to stop Kinter from abusing his wife and child. Both investigations lead Conte to the details of a massacre 15 years previously in which three mob bosses were killed during a traffic accident with mysterious circumstances. Lentricchia untangles this complex plot web in a well-crafted page-turner of a detective novel.
Lentricchia’s academic specialty is modern poetry, literature and literary theory, and he has previously written fiction and a memoir. “The Accidental Pallbearer” is more than a thriller. Robinson, who is the city’s first black police chief, and Conte have a complex relationship – one “beyond blood.” Silvio has always considered Robinson his second son, and while he has done much for his blood son (including setting him up in a house), Eliot and his father are estranged. Amid all the investigations and plot twists, Eliot and Antonio work out their different relationship with Silvio, and, finally, with each other.
Lentricchia draws a passionately nostalgic portrait of Utica. He contrasts a quiet, solidly middle-class part of town “in a neighborhood where Utica’s classic ethnic minorities of old – the Italians, the Poles, the Lebanese … had not penetrated” with its working class and lower middle class neighborhoods. Lentricchia’s prose soars in his description of these neighborhoods, “where people gathered on street corners and porches to smoke, argue, gossip, pontificate on the insults of life, and above all to compare notes on the progress in summertime of their backyard gardens. …”
The novel also is a celebration of Italian-American culture. At the beginning of the book, Conte and his friend Robinson have traveled to Troy to attend a live Metropolitan Opera telecast in a local theater. Conte leaves the theater before the end of the opera because the tenor is “not in good voice.” Later, as the two are talking about the rogue cop case, Conte suggests to Robinson that they get together and play a recording of Luciano Pavarotti, while feasting on Ossobuco alla Milanese with some Risotto alla Toscana and Cannoli. When Antonio and Eliot resolve their conflict over Silvio, they get together for the opera “La Boheme” and “a long lunch.”
Lentricchia plans more Eliot Conte novels. In this first installment, he leaves some loose ends, including one love interest, for what many readers will no doubt anticipate as a second and third course – preferably with cannoli.