An atmospheric historical thriller of subterfuge and illicit love with a menacing plot set in Mussolini’s Asmara, Italian Eritrea.
Colonel Francesco Ferrazza, a disciplined and inflexible Royal Italian Army officer with Italy’s Fascist Military Information Service, and his attractive British wife, Emilia, are posted to Asmara affectionately referred to as “Little Rome” by Mussolini. The colonel is a familiar figure at the military casino and bordello where he brags at the bar he can bend a fireplace poker in half. But he is astonished when in 1938 he is ordered by his Rome superior to set in motion an unusual but clandestine sabotage operation of the engineering marvel that is the Asmara-Massawa cableway that links Italian Eritrea to the sea.
Food, supplies, and war materiel are moved from the colony’s Red Sea seaport in Massawa some 44 miles away to Asmara 7,600 feet above sea level.
Fearful of the devastating power of exposure Ferrazza sets out to find someone to carry out Operation Red Lion and meets Mario Caparrotti, an amateur race car driver. He plans to compete in the first Christmas Day automobile race through town.
CAPARROTTI’S NICKNAME IS SOLDI—MONEY, BECAUSE HE ALMOST ALWAYS WINS.
Greedy, boastful, and ignorant, Caparrotti is all of the things the colonel detests in his fellow human beings, civilians in particular. But Ferrazza is desperate to recruit him because he is a cableway mechanic who has unfettered access to the engine room. The colonel entices him with his wife. Prodded by her husband the reluctant Emilia unhappily plays her part by becoming Caparrotti’s lover.
But things begin to fall apart: Caparrotti balks and now also demands significant sums of cash and when the colonel murders a colonial civil servant who has somehow learned of the plot he orders Caparrotti to help him dispose of the body. With the driver more reluctant than ever, and with the deadline drawing nearer, the colonel will do anything to ensure the sabotage is carried out.
As the plane dropped still further and their airspeed slowed Aiscroft watched the wing slice through dark plumes of smoke floating up into the sky and moments before they landed they overflew a ragtag procession of men and boys with sticks herding a long line of caramel-colored camels up a rutted track that snaked away into the distant hills.
Unexpectedly, Gyles Aiscroft, a Rome-based British freelance foreign correspondent, and an old family friend of Emilia’s parents arrives in Asmara. An older man she finds herself drawn to him and confides her plight to him. They embark on a brief, intense affair. But what she doesn’t count on is his falling in love with her and wanting to whisk her off to Capri.
Determined to leave Africa with his mission complete, and with the deadline almost upon him, Ferrazza instructs the resigned and fearful Caparrotti how to go about setting the dynamite charges.
And now, about to return to Italy, away at last from the colony he so despised, the colonel mulled over the few remaining details of the destruction he would soon set in motion.
And as the tick-tock of the clock counts down the final hours the colonel belatedly begins to grasp that in ‘Little Rome’ nothing is what it seems, no one can be trusted and, when serving Mussolini, failure will never be condoned.