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Diego Marani: God's Dog (Dedalus)

Italian author Diego Marani's international fame is largely due to New Finnish Grammar, an inventive novel which probed the possibilities of language and its connection with identity.

God's Dog is described as his first attempt at a detective story, but "dystopian satire" would probably be nearer the mark.

It's set a few years into the future, when Italy has become a theocracy, meaning that the Vatican's word is law. Abortionists, naturally, face the death penalty, and even fornicators and masturbators now fall under the jurisdiction of the justice system.

Domingo Salazar is one of the Vatican's crack troops, papal policemen granted such power that even the Swiss Guard would think twice before challenging one. An infiltrator and assassin, Salazar has been assigned to a hospital ward for the terminally ill to crack a circle of "euthanasiasts", who flout God's will by allowing patients to choose the time of their own death.

Salazar's position, though, is not entirely secure. What he hopes his superiors don't know is that, while posted in the Netherlands, he went off-message and began to forge alliances between Christians and Muslims on the basis that, as fellow believers, they should unite to defeat the real enemies: the atheists. Time and again, Salazar and other papal agents sabotaged and falsified scientific experiments, or swapped life-saving vaccines for water, to destroy people's faith in science. But this ecumenical initiative may be too radical for his bosses. They may even want him dead.

It's debatable whether Marani would have much of a future as a thriller writer. You can tell it's not a form he's committed to, rather one he has adopted as a vehicle for his philosophical musings, and he hasn't put in the extra effort to make it outstanding. He and his translator have also let some very clunky dialogue slip through; "Your madcap plans will cause utter bedlam, and I'll take advantage of it to murder the swine" being one of several gems. But as a book about morality, raising issues which can be discussed long and passionately, God's Dog is an exemplary piece of work.

EIBF, August 12

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