Perhaps perversely, I've always had a preference for Italy – its hill towns in particular – in the most dank months of the year.

I am drawn, therefore, to the novels of the melancholic Valerio Varesi who, first with River Of Shadows and now with The Dark Valley, gravitates to late autumn, a season of mists and fog, gales and snow.

Varesi, like so many others before him, is a crime novelist who has understood the attraction for Italians and foreigners alike of his troubled, mysterious homeland. But Varesi not only eschews the tourist hotspots, he refuses to indulge readers with romantic visions of Italian home life and its warming cuisine, and its comfortingly close-knit communities.

In his debut and now with this, if possible, bleaker offering, he pares away the surface of modern Italy like a grocer slicing rind off pecorino. What he finds below is rancid. The crimes he depicts are the product of the country's ugliest times, their origins in the conflicts between the past century's partisans and fascists, and those vacillating in between, who only wanted to save their skins.

The pretext for his morose detective Commissario Soneri's latest adventure is his decision to holiday in his childhood village, Montelupo, high in the Apennines in Liguria. His boyhood trips to the woods with his late and much missed father were a rare chance for the pair to spend time together, and Soneri is in nostalgic mood as he sets out on his first day's ramble, intent on finding mushrooms in the dense forest above the village. Instead, as dusk falls, he finds himself narrowly dodging gunfire, the mist so thick he cannot tell who is shooting, and whether he is the target.

In the days that follow he is reluctantly drawn into a savage piece of theatre. Montelupo's wealthy patron and main employer, he learns, has gone bankrupt, which bodes ill for the villagers, many of whom had lent him their life savings with the promise of eye-watering profits. When the patron's much-loathed son, a city slicker, is found shot dead in the woods – shortly followed by the suicide of his father – an intimidating local woodsman becomes the prime suspect. The arrival of the carabinieri with orders to bring this feral man to justice triggers a week of gun-fights in the hills, the village turning into an echo chamber, as the shots resound above them. Uncomfortably close to the eye of the storm, the villagers cower and wonder what will become of them, as well as the hunted.

Varesi's plotting is sound, and his pacing good. Where he raises his game from the common crime ruck, however, is in his almost painterly evocation of wretchedly dark atmosphere and character. He could be the long-lost heir of Caravaggio. His grizzled old men and their flinty womenfolk are at odds with the country's much-desired bella figura, but they are the heart and soul of a certain hard-bitten and punishing Italian community, where even today old enmities smoulder.

A few chapters into The Dark Valley, and the reader is coated in woodsmoke and filled with apprehension. The unnerving and the unrelenting are Varesi's forte, and the setting and history of his homeland play into his hands. As a hero, if that's the word, Soneri is not the best of company, and one understands his brittle girlfriend Angela keeping her distance for most of this tale, although the couple's phone calls add a much-needed spark of healthy human interaction. It says much for the author's confidence that he resists any temptation to add glamour to this story, instead kettling events within the beautiful setting of this grim and anxious hill town.

Valerio Varesi

translated by Joseph Farrell

Maclehose, £18.99

The Dark Valley