The Italian Lee Child

Gianrico Carofiglio bills himself as Italy's only writer of legal thrillers - and he doesn't shy away from exposing some uncomfortable home truths

The elegant Gianrico Carofiglio is very much his own man. Meeting him in the plush fifth floor bar of Waterstone's, Piccadilly, one is quickly impressed by his erudition - he namechecks Proust, Chesterton and Steinbeck within a few minutes - his fierce intelligence and knowledge of the law (prior to his highly successful crime-writing career, he was celebrated as a prosecutor in the Italian town of Bari), and his extremely proficient English.

Yet after just a few minutes in his company it's impossible not to be reminded of another highly successful crime writer - Carofiglio is tall, attractive and casually dressed in jeans that show the comme il faut amount of distress. His effect on women is quickly evident, and when he talks about the fact that he is regarded by feminine admirers as something of a surrogate for his fictional protagonist, lawyer Guido Guerrieri, it's hard not to think: "Gianrico Carofiglio is the Italian Lee Child!". And if his hero, Guido, is a more thoughtful, less two-fisted character than the brawling Jack Reacher, he is as much a favourite with female readers as Lee Child's maverick troubleshooter.

Asked about the author/character syndrome, Carofiglio smiles and stretches out his long legs. "Well, the question I am most often asked by those who read my books is: 'Are you Guido?' I used to say no, I'm not; he's a character I write about. But then I realised the effect he was having on readers - particularly women - and I decided to be more... flexible!"

Crime fiction in translation is a taste the English are rapidly acquiring, and writing as vivid and astringent as Carofiglio's should accelerate the trend. The author is a brave man: an anti-Mafia judge in Puglia who has taken on the powerful and (lethal) corruption that is endemic in Italy, his debut novel Involuntary Witness, published by plucky independent Bitter Lemon Press (since followed by other, well-received books), began with the body of a child being discovered in a well at a southern Italian beach resort. A Senegalese peddler is arraigned for sexual assault and murder, but Defence Counsel Guido Guerrieri realises that the truth is more complex and is soon confronted by a tangled skein of racism and judicial corruption.

Italian crime fiction seems more ready to take on uncomfortable social issues than the home-grown product, and Carofiglio's trenchant prose makes for irresistible reading – the new book, Temporary Perfections, is even more accomplished (his English translators are Howard Curtis and Antony Shugaar). His time as a prosecutor has left Carofiglio crammed with the kind of minute legal expertise that he channels so entertainingly (if exhaustively) into his novels, but he is surprisingly dismissive of his time in this high-profile job.

"I suppose I reached something of a midlife crisis," he says. "I'd reached the age of 40, and thought: 'what am I doing?' I realised that I wasn't doing what I wanted to do with my life. Certainly, my job was demanding and fulfilling and it was satisfying to work within the parameters of the law - interrogation, for instance, is a fascinating process [Carofiglio has written popular non-fiction books about the legal profession], but ever since I read Jack London's White Fang as a boy, I wanted to write – that book was genuinely life-changing for me. At the age of 40 I decided to buckle down and actually do it – to try to write. And to my relief, readers appear to be responding to what I'm doing."

That, of course, is putting it modestly. Carofiglio's books are highly successful – and almost invariably well reviewed -- throughout the world, and he has arrived in London after an exhausting tour of the United States talking about Temporary Perfections.

More coffee is ordered, and I try to draw Carofiglio on the writing process. After Proust and Chesterton as exemplars, he had mentioned how he first read about London in Conan Doyle's fog-shrouded evocation of the city, visible below from Waterstone's fifth floor window. For his writing process, he draws on another literary model. "Margaret Atwood uses an image that struck me - it's like entering a darkened room and finding a way to the exit. At the exit is – hopefully -- the book you have been trying to write."

Carafiglio is nothing if not an Italian, and is prepared to talk -- very frankly -- about the current vicissitudes of his own country. This is surprising, for (as well as being a novelist) Carofiglio still has another prestigious vocation; he is a member of the Senate. Does this constrain him, I ask, when talking about his own country and its ruling elite?

"Not at all!" he replies firmly, jerking forward in his seat. "It is clear that we need radical change in government – we just cannot go on in Italy as we have been doing. Things are happening in our country that are making us something of a joke in the rest of the world." (Who can he be talking about?).

He continues, forcefully: "What really angers me is hypocrisy in government – it makes my blood boil when laws are changed to protect the powerful from prosecution. Although, of course, Italy is not alone in having a good measure of hypocrisy in its rulers, is it?"

He relaxes into a recumbent position. "The most important thing for me now, though, is writing. When I was a boy I avidly consumed everything: Westerns, films, comic strips, Jules Verne. But like my protagonist Guido I wanted to go after the bad guys. In my time as a public prosecutor, I dealt with everything from Mafia murders to drug trafficking and extortion. Certainly my view of humanity was conditioned by this work -- both for good and for ill. And if I can utilise all that in my novels, that's immensely satisfying for me."

Gianrico Carofiglio possesses amour-propre, but also something of a quiet modesty, so it is a little surprising when he says: "After all, I have been described as Italy's best writer of legal thrillers..." And then comes the punchline: "But then I am Italy's only writer of legal thrillers..."

Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio is published by Bitter Lemon Press.