Place and Placelessness in The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini

and The Laughterhouse by Paul Cleave


Margie Michael

Victoria University of Wellington


In this article I analyse the representation of place and the insider/outsider perspective in Roberto Costantini’s Tu sei il male (2011, translated into English as The Deliverance of Evil, 2013) and Paul Cleave’s The Laughterhouse (2012) through the lens of Edward Relph’s theory of place and placelessness. In order to do this I investigate the detectives, the murderers and the places they inhabit: Rome for Commissario Balistreri and Christchurch for Detective Theodore Tate.  A comparison of two cities so culturally and politically different and half a world apart may seem somewhat unusual. However, along with some commonalities at plot level, it is the treatment of the cities and the detectives’ alienation from them that marks these novels as a starting point for the exploration of both place and placelessness. Both novels begin with the commission of past crimes, Deliverance with a murder committed in Rome during the 1982 World Cup final, and Laughterhouse with a murder committed in an old slaughterhouse some fifteen years before the present day of the novel. Both novels belong to series, Deliverance being the first book in the Commissario Balistreri trilogy,[1] and Laughterhouse being Cleave’s sixth novel involving Detective Tate.[2]

Relph argues that “[p]laces are fusions of human and natural order and are the significant centres of our immediate experiences of the world. They are defined less by the unique locations, landscape, and communities than by the focussing of experiences and intentions onto particular settings” (1976, p. 141). For a writer it is not only this “focussing of experiences and intentions” that is important but also the desire to enable the reader to recreate the emotions and memories with which the writer wishes to imbue those places. Since places are real, experienced and full of meanings they become part of personal and communal identities, being at times “profound centres of human existence to which people have deep emotional and psychological ties” (ibid).

Twenty years later Relph expanded on these comments by reflecting that place and the sense of place can in fact show the baser tendencies of communities and countries and can “be the basis for exclusionary practices, for parochialism, and for xenophobia” (1996, p. 14), demonstrating that place also establishes an experience of “insideness” and “outsideness” and that the level of one’s connectedness to a place determines one’s feelings about that place: “[i]ndeed our relationships with places are just as necessary, varied and sometimes perhaps just as unpleasant as our relationships with other people” (ibid).

In both novels the detectives of the present are very different from their earlier incarnations. Despite a distant past as a far-Right activist and womaniser, Michele Balistreri “had redeemed himself by serving and risking his life for the state, as well as keeping his distance from all political factions” (p. 152).[3] He is, however, deemed “suspicious” by the state because he “used terms like Fatherland, honour, loyalty. There was baggage from the past…” (ibid). Theodore Tate’s baggage from the past is very different. His young daughter was killed by a drunk driver and his wife left in a coma. He killed the man responsible, but the rest of the world thinks the culprit fled the country. It was Tate’s own conviction for drunk driving that led to a prison sentence, and loss of his police badge, and Tate, now working as a private investigator contracting to the police, wants his badge back. He has served his time and beaten his drinking demon. Both men are thus inside the police system but outsiders with their colleagues.

The places in which these novels are set are also complex. Balistreri’s Rome is a difficult place, politically and geographically. In 1982 the 32-year-old Balistreri was based at a police station in Vigna Clara which “was about as exciting as a thermal spa. In that residential district of the Roman middle class, a policeman’s life ran as quietly as someone in retirement” (p. 11). He lives away from the “false Rome” (the term Balistreri uses to describe what he sees as Vigna Clara’s rich middle-class hypocrisy) and keeps his distance “from the historic centre where the city’s chaos and decadence were more in evidence” (p. 13). The 1982 murder, on the evening Italy wins the World Cup, takes place in a luxury residential complex of two low-rise blocks, one inhabited by a Cardinal and the other by a Count who, in his position as senator wants to return the monarchy to Italy. These two men are far apart politically and morally, but are residing in close proximity in a “little corner of paradise […] liv[ing] a separate life far above that wonderfully chaotic city crawling with people and traffic” (p. 21).With these characters Costantini emphasises not only the very clear lines between the church and the government but also their distance, geographically and emotionally, from the disadvantaged residents of Rome, of whom the victim was one. This first murder is not solved.

By contrast, for the young Tate, focussed on his career as a new policeman, crime dominates the Christchurch he knows, and he measures the city by crime scenes. The first murder scene he attends is in a disused slaughterhouse:

It was Christmas in August. A real winter wonderland […] It all looked like a Christmas scene; Santa had come to the wrong part of town, met the wrong kind of people and paid the worst kind of price. The halogens and headlights pointed at an old building, spotlighting the tragedy and turning it into a pageant. (p. 2)

This murder is solved, but the victim’s father does not believe justice has been done.

In the present of Deliverance, twenty-four years on in 2006, Rome has changed just as Balistreri has. Italy is economically depressed, racism is widespread and the Berlusconi government seems arrogant and corrupt.[4] Despite Balistreri’s success as head of the police Special Section and the loyalty he has engendered in his own small team through his personal integrity, he is distrusted by his superiors and disliked by his peers for his refusal to play the political game. His home is a small bolthole in the centre of Rome and, living on anti-depressants and antacids, his “life is like his decaf coffee – insipid” (p. 166). When a young girl is murdered suspicion falls on three young Roma (gypsies) from the shanty town of Casilino 900.[5] The ensuing media clamour ensures the Roman citizens become confused as to whether the alleged criminals are Roma or among the Romanians who are pouring into Rome as refugees (pp. 155, 157). Costantini replicates the confusion many residents of Rome felt between the Roma gypsies with nowhere to live but the shanty town, and the Romanians who (in their pre EU days) flood into Rome looking for work and end up joining the Roma in Casilino 900.[6] This confusion drives the plot as it is apparent to the police and the politicians that these accused men could not have committed the crimes, but the media uproar creates a diversion from the less savoury truth that a serial killer may be responsible for the murder. Although not the murderers, these young Roma men become Relph’s “outsiders” as they are victims of the “exclusionary practices and xenophobia” he describes. As the murders continue it becomes obvious to Balistreri that these are crimes that are machinated at the highest levels and that in some way they are aimed at him.

In the present of Laughterhouse fifteen years on, Tate’s Christchurch has also changed from the more innocent city of the past. It is now a city where leaflets advertising half-price brothels are left on mourners’ cars at the cemetery, and “homeless guys try to sell Jesus for the price of a beer”, where “beer and all its friends got Tate into trouble” and where a cop dying of cancer “got sick of the way things play out in this city […] tried to make a difference and just got killed for it” (p. 16). Tate merely exists in an empty house, alone except for his cat and the ghost of his daughter. He becomes involved in the investigation of a murder committed in a retirement village. This murder is followed by another a few hours later, and as the body count rises Tate becomes officially attached to the investigation as a consultant. The police come under even more pressure when a psychiatrist and his daughters are kidnapped and it becomes apparent that the murders and the kidnapping are linked. The police focus intensifies as the killer must be found before the children and the psychiatrist are also murdered.

Balistreri and Tate do not find comfort in their homes, nor a sense of belonging with their colleagues; they are driven by the memories of the past murders and by their determination to stop the present killings, unhindered by political niceties and the procedural difficulties that seem to block them. They have both become examples of Relph’s outsiders.

Although, as policemen, Balistreri and Tate would expect to belong to their cities, they both feel isolated; rather than feeling a connectedness to their respective cities they only feel the drive to right the wrongs they discover within their cities. Glenn Most argues that

[t]he European detective is at home in his city: he admires the order his knowledge of it reveals to him, and he is relieved to restore it to that order by solving the crimes he regards as regrettable and remediable exceptions, however frequent they may become. We might say he is first and foremost a city-lover and only secondarily a detective; he happens to work as a detective, and this is one way he declares his love for the city he lives in (Most 2006, p. 69).

Neither Balistreri nor Tate loves his city; for them solving the crime may restore order, but will not bring back any love they may have once had for Rome or Christchurch. They consider their cities too damaged, and are more like Most’s “American detective” who may know his way around his city as well as his European colleague,

but he is not at all integrated as seamlessly as they are […] He uses his city, but he distrusts and dislikes it. And he has good reason to feel this way: for he has learned that the city is a tissue of complicity that links all its inhabitants in an inextricable web of crime, shame, and concealment – and he himself is no less intrinsic and culpable an element of it than the victims he reluctantly avenges and the criminals he unenthusiastically pursues. (Most 2006, p. 70)

Most’s concept of the American detective and his relationship with the city reinforces Relph’s concept of “outsideness” – the American detective’s position as an outsider is constantly reinforced by the endless procession of “crime, shame and concealment” (Most 2006, p. 70).  Tate, although resident in a New Zealand city, replicates the American detective in his distrust and dislike of his city. Balistreri’s Rome, once his playground, has now, too, become a place Balistreri distrusts.

Balistreri’s Rome is a large complex metropolis of well over three million inhabitants almost ten percent of whom are non-Italian; Tate’s Christchurch is less than one tenth the size with only three per cent of the population being non-New Zealanders. Both cities are popular with tourists and appear beautiful and memorable to the visitor, reflecting Relph’s proposition that “places are real, experienced and full of meaning” (1976, p. 14), but both have their dark undersides of criminality, “exclusionary practices and xenophobia” (ibid), and, following Most’s argument both cities fit the descriptions of American cities, rather than the European or Antipodean spaces that they are.

Raymond Chandler famously argued that the realism in crime fiction comes from the language used by the characters, and that crime writers needed to reflect the way the characters “talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes” (1988, p. 14-15). However, Malcah Effron writes that an increasing number of contemporary fiction writers present “settings with near-cartographic accuracy so the novels practically serve as street atlases […] [T]hese authors use real settings as a means of establishing a realistic story” (2009, p. 331). Effron sees that “the real setting provides an underlying basis of reality to confirm the legitimacy of the events portrayed in the narrative as a description of the society and culture represented in the novel: the real setting generates the basis of reality that authenticates the speech” (p. 334).

Costantini describes a real and familiar Rome in terms of specific referents of place: the police station in Vigna Clara, the residential district of “Roman middleclass” (p. 11), or crossing “the historic city centre […] the Coliseum [...] the Piazza di Spagna and the Piazza del Popolo [...] up the winding slopes of Monte Mario” (p. 20). His setting referents have real time markers, dates and events including the Italian victory in the 1982 World Cup:

On the final referee’s whistle, tens of thousands were already on the streets. In a few minutes the traffic was jammed solid, folk sitting on car roofs shouting with joy, waving flags, sounding air horns and beating drums. Columns of red, white and green smoke were everywhere; the night was painted with national colours […] I was in a state of near delirium about the glorious victory and the probable hook-up with Cristina. (p. 48)

This scene, and Balistreri’s sullenness about his enjoyment of it being interrupted, is in marked contrast to the finding of Elisa Sordi’s body dumped in the Tiber. Costantini’s inclusion of political referents adds to the realism as well as emphasising Balistreri’s difficulty in investigating the murder, although twenty-four years later the older Balistreri has still not forgiven himself for his failure in bringing Elisa’s killer to justice. The complexity brought to the case by the involvement of powerful government and Vatican figures add a further level of realism for readers. As the political ramifications of policing in Rome have become even more complex in the Rome of 2006, so too has the city itself. Balistreri now lives in a “part of Rome which is a mixture of heaven and hell. For three years he’d had to live in the historic centre, which he hated; it may have looked magical at night, but during the day it was smelly and chaotic […] [He lived in] a small apartment on the second floor over a small street in the middle of traffic noise, waves of tourists and shopping frenzy” (p. 163). His womanising has stopped and his life outside of work is non-existent except for time spent with his brother and his good friend, Dioguardi. “He slept little and badly, hearing every noise – great and small – of the damned city. He couldn’t take sleeping pills because they counteracted his antidepressants” (ibid). However, he has become a very competent policeman.

Although Rome has changed, Costantini continues with his geographically correct descriptions and his accurate recording of the political environment; he is creating a reality that his readers will know in order to establish credibility for the crimes that continue to unfold. However, now Costantini is writing of a Rome that instead of being one of Relph’s “profound centres of human existence” has become a city which cannot be known; its complexities – political, religious, economic and cultural – have ensured this, and it is now a city that demonstrates the baser tendencies of whole communities.

Howell writes “[C]onsider the way in which attention to details of site and setting works to interpellate the reader by locating her or him with respect to the places and people of the story. Describing the particularities of specific cities is especially successful in this regard” (1998, p. 366). Costantini is one such author, placing the reader geographically and politically in both of the Romes he depicts. Howell asserts that the reader has knowledge given through “shared references of the everyday world – the street map and the street signs, for instance – that are not themselves exclusive. And in the sense that the urban references construct a sense of place, it is the construction of a truly shared place” (p. 367). Thus the Rome that Costantini creates for Balistreri to inhabit is one that is familiar to the reader because of the shared nature of known places such as the Coliseum and the Piazza di Spagna and known events including the World Cup. It is in the familiar Rome in which Balistreri and the reader are now located that Costantini can allow the evil of his novel’s title to be enacted.

Cleave constructs his Christchurch in very different ways. Laughterhouse lacks the verifiable geographical and political referents found in Deliverance. The scenes Cleave describes subvert our expectations – the “Christmas in August”, the “real winterland”, a reversal of seasons for New Zealand, is in fact a murder scene but the description that follows creates a setting that will be just as real for the reader as any geographical referent:

And of course the smell. It smelled of the death that had marched through the doors two by two, like animals heading onto the ark, except there wasn’t any salvation for them. The floor had absorbed the blood and the shit and the urine over the few years the slaughterhouse operated, death and all the messy bits that come with it were entrenched in the cement, buried in the foundations and the walls and even the air. (Cleave 2012, p. 2)

Cleave’s Christchurch seems to be defined by the weather, which provides a consistent backdrop: “It’s bad funeral weather. The early Monday morning Christchurch sun has given way to rain, a cloudless sky now nothing but grey without a hint of blue, one minute the rain thick and steady, the next nothing more than an annoying drizzle that the windscreen wipers on my car struggle to keep up with” (p. 5). Cleave’s Christchurch is unremittingly grim despite being apparently unaffected by the recent earthquakes.[7] Middleton and Woods write that “the contemporary cityscape is envisaged as constantly fluctuating, constantly under negotiation, always decentralised and structured by altering stimulations” (2000, p. 307), yet Cleave chooses to create his destabilised / unstable, fluctuating, dark city without using the Christchurch landscape as it has been over the last five years. Instead he peoples his city with characters that reinforce this grim darkness: “It’s after ten o’clock, the town is lit up from streetlights and nightclubs, the alcohol in the city starting to flow. The boy-racers will fill the streets as the hours tick by, teenagers with nowhere better to be or nothing better to do, all of them slaves to the current fashion of drinking as much as they possibly can” (p. 263).

 In many ways Cleave’s Christchurch could be any city, or every city. It reflects Soja’s “unbound” modern metropolis with “former spatial structures as well as social and cultural boundaries seeing their defining force diminished” (p. 462). However, in Laughterhouse the legal boundaries of the police are also diminished. Cleave’s Christchurch is an unfamiliar Christchurch with few real referents; a place where the reader and the detective struggle to find the known, the particularity of that city. Christchurch functions, in Shields’ words, as “a crisis-object destabilizing our certainty about the real” (1991, p. 227). The reader loses any certainty about Christchurch, and it becomes an “unbound” modern metropolis as its definition is blurred.

Leonard Lutwack offers a different way to consider the modern city, arguing that there has developed in contemporary thinking an ambivalence to earth and that “the ultimate cause of this ambivalence is the knowledge that earth is both the source of life and the condition of death, a place where life begins and ends. Though born of earth, man is reluctant to return to earth, to surrender the possibility and accept known limitation” (1984, pp. 4-5).  In these works by Cleave and Costantini, and indeed in all crime fiction, it is possible to see that murder, its commission and the search for the perpetrator, bring all involved, the characters, the writer and the reader, to consider this ambivalence, and to face time and again our human limitations and our inevitable return to earth/land/place. Both Balistreri and Tate appear to feel this ambivalence and see the cities as the condition of death rather than a source of life, so that their only hope of any relief is to bring the criminals to justice.

Costantini has several murderers in his complexly articulated plot, but I will consider only two here, Manfredi and Angelo Dioguardi. Cleave, too, has more than one murderer, and of these I will discuss the central murderer, Caleb Cole. All three killers have much in common. They are not from the “criminal classes”, but rather from positions of comfort and respect, positions that are changed dramatically by the murders they commit.

Manfredi, the son of the Senator, Count Tommaso dei Banchi di Aglieno, hides a facial disfigurement behind long hair and a motorcycle helmet and is an observer of life, usually through binoculars. Although he is not responsible for the death of Elisa Sordi he leaves Rome after this 1982 murder and makes a life for himself in Kenya where he appears to be accepted despite his disfigurement, and where he murders young women, seemingly at will. After Manfredi’s death, his father shifts blame for Manfredi’s actions: “He was a murderer, Balistreri. He became one because of the preconceptions of this Western society based on a bourgeois hedonism and Catholic hypocrisy. He was a kind, cultured little boy who became fearful. He was rejected by women because of his face” (p. 619). Manfredi is an outsider in Rome, despite his father’s money, power and influence, and an outsider in Kenya where, although he is accepted as a rich benefactor, it is a superficial acceptance and he can never really integrate into Kenyan society.

Angelo Dioguardi is Balistreri’s closest friend. In 1982 he is at the beginning of a promising career working for Cardinal Alessandrini and has a beautiful fiancée. After Sordi’s unsolved murder he leaves this charmed life behind for a rootless life playing and winning at poker, donating his winnings to charities. Dioguardi killed Elia Sordi so that the fact he had fathered her unborn baby would remain a secret. Dioguardi had belonged in Rome and in the Roman society in which he moved, but his secrets, and the murder he committed, ensured that he became an outsider, not only in Rome but wherever he travelled. “He had reacted by facing up to life, trying to act kindly to others and performing good deeds for many. But it wasn’t enough for him […] he had accepted killing Manfredi as the last act of expiation for his enormous sin” (p. 629).

The killer in Cleave’s novel, Caleb Cole, had been a maths teacher, well regarded by his colleagues and pupils before his young daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a young man who had raped a child before, but had been released after only two years because evidence at his trial demonstrated that he could be rehabilitated. Cole drove into the van that was taking this killer to court and in so doing killed him as well the policeman who was driving the van. After serving fifteen years for these murders, Cole is free, and determined to punish all who may have had any semblance of responsibility in assisting the court to make that decision, a decision he blames not only for the death of his daughter, but also for the suicide of his wife and the loss of their unborn child. Cole is alone, vengeful and obsessive, very much an outsider in his own city.

Manfredi carves letters onto the bodies of his victims in Rome, spelling “YOU ARE EVIL”, Cole writes in blood on the victims’ walls “You didn’t care enough”, “Was it worth it?”, “You were complicit”. All three killers want to punish; Manfredi, because of his impotence, through his vendetta against women; Cole through his desire for vengeance for what he has lost; Dioguardi wishes to punish only himself. Both Manfredi and Cole blame individuals for what they see as society’s inadequacies as reflected in their own outsider status, but they remain blind to the suffering they themselves are creating.

For the surviving victims and those around, this suffering can involve changes to the way they feel about their homes and their cities, places where previously they had a sense of safety and belonging. Eleven-year-old Melanie, one of Cole’s kidnapping victims, sums up this loss saying “I want to go home only I don’t even know what home is anymore” (Cleave 2012, p. 256). For Countess Ulla, Manfredi’s mother, her suffering is the despair she feels in believing her son is a murderer and she throws herself from her apartment terrace when Manfredi is arrested for Elisa Sordi’s murder. It is this alienation from place that causes the most distress. It is an alienation which drives the murderers, but then spreads to the detectives who are determined to solve the murders, to do what they must to ensure justice; yet in so doing the detectives, too, become removed from the rest of society. As Melanie’s plaintive voice echoes, all that remains for the survivors of crime is alienation from home and familiar places, leaving only placelessness.

By considering The Deliverance of Evil and The Laughterhouse in terms of the use of place and the insideness and outsideness of Relph’s argument it is possible to explore crime fiction in a different way which also considers connectedness to place. This connectedness, and its corollary, lack of connection to place, or placelessness, is also another way to partly explain the differences between Most’s European and the American detectives and their very different attitudes to their cities. Costantini and Cleave both create an ambivalence about Rome and Christchurch, not only for their characters, but also for their readers, reminding us that the earth, as Lutwack describes it, is as much a condition of death as a source of life.



Chandler, R 1988, The Simple Art of Murder, Vintage Books, New York.

Cleave, P 2012, The Laughterhouse, Penguin Books, Auckland. 

Costantini, R 2013, The Deliverance of Evil, trans. N. S. Thompson, Quercus, London. (Originally published in 2011 as Tu sei il male, Marsilio, Venice.)

Effron, M 2009, ‘Fictional Murders in Real “Mean Streets”: Detective Narratives and Authentic Urban Geographies’, Journal of Narrative Theory, vol 39 no 3 (Fall), pp330-346.

Howell, P 1998, 'Crime and the City Solution: Crime Fiction, Urban Knowledge, and Radical Geography',  Antipode vol 30 no 4, pp 357-378.

Lutwack, L 1984, The Role of Place in Literature, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.

Middleton, P & Woods T 2000, Literatures of Memory: History, Time and Space in Postwar Writing, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Most, GW 2006, ‘Urban Blues and the Metropolitan Sublime’, The Yale Review vol 94 no 1, pp. 56-72.

Relph, EC 1976, Place and Placelessness, Pion, London.

Relph, EC 1996, ‘Reflections on Place and Placelessness’, Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology Newsletter, vol 7 no 3 (Fall), Accessed 31 March 2016,

Shields, R 1991, Places on the Margins: Alternative Geographies of Modernity, Routledge, London.

Soja, EW 2011, ‘Beyond Postmetropolis’, Urban Geography, vol 32 no 4, pp. 451-469.



[1] The second in the series is Alle radici del male (2012, translated as The Root of All Evil, 2015) and the final is Il male non dimentica (2014, translated as The Memory of Evil, to be published in 2016).

[2] Cleave has published eight novels about the same group of detectives operating out of the Christchurch police station; not all feature Detective Tate as the main detective, but Cleave produces ingenious links between all these novels. It could be said that Cleave actually subverts the serial structure of the crime novel in that the detectives do not necessarily remain detectives (Tate, for example, is imprisoned for a time), nor do they necessarily solve the crimes.

[3] All the Costantini quotes are taken from N.S. Thompson’s English translation.

[4] Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister of Italy during the periods 1994-1995, 2001-2006 and 2008-2011. At the same time he owned Mediaset (officially he did not, but his family controlled it), the largest media company in Italy and the football team AC Milan. In 2013 he was convicted of tax fraud. His times as Prime Minister were dogged by controversy.

[5] Casilino, a camp on the borders of Municipalities VII and VIII and home to about 600 Roma, was cleared of its inhabitants in 2010.

[6] A similar confusion is demonstrated by Stefan Simons and Carsten Volkery in an article in Spiegel Online International (21 February 2013), in which they confuse the Romanian immigrants to Western Europe with the gypsies by referring to the immigrants as Roma.

[7] Although six of Cleave’s books have been published since the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 they never form part of his Christchurch experience or landscape. He writes in the Author’s Note in Joe Victim, “I don’t want to write a book about an earthquake in Christchurch; not to try and entertain people” (p. 8). He also explains that the timeline in the sequence of the novels prevented this in his later novels.


Margie Michael is at Victoria University of Wellington completing a PhD on New Zealand crime fiction, looking particularly at the use of place, placelessness and beyond. She returned to university for a one-year break from a career in the public sector to complete an Honours degree, but now, nearly five years later, has found research and crime fiction to be completely addictive.


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 2 No 1 2016
Editors: Barbara Pezzotti and Brigid Maher