Italy, a country we are celebrating this year in Japan, is at the cutting edge of all sorts of things: food, fashion, fast cars, films and some interesting criminal practices. Oh, and bizarre opera plots. Sometimes it seems as if those last two get a bit entangled.

Take the news last week that somebody had stolen the body of the late investment banker Enrico Cuccia from his family’s mausoleum. Even blase Italians were transfixed. Cuccia, of course, was not just any old investment banker. The founder of Italy’s Mediobanca, he was the behind-the-scenes financial wizard in many of postwar Europe’s biggest mergers and exercised quiet but unrivaled influence on the European stock exchanges. By the time he died last June at 92, he was a near-legend. The grave robbers had set their sights high.

In the days since, Italy has been trying to make sense of this novel crime. It says a lot about the way the country works that the obvious motive — hope of an astronomical ransom — is not the only one being mentioned, even though police have a credible ransom demand in hand. In a sign of the stock-market jitters that Italy, like everyone else, has been experiencing, one man says he has Cuccia’s body but won’t return it until the Milan index of blue-chip stocks rebounds (does he think the departed banker has even more clout dead than alive?). Police have also not ruled out involvement by a satanic cult.

Most tellingly of all, some observers see a political motive behind the grisly theft. The fact is that in the runup to elections scheduled for May 13, feelings are running so high in Italy — what with antiglobalization riots, fears of mad cow disease and the usual trading of corruption charges — that politics looms behind everything, no matter how improbably. In this case, no doubt, the idea is to pin the crime on the opposition. From the perspective of staid Japan, it is hard to imagine a political climate in which such an allegation could be taken seriously, even by the media.

One thing is sure, though: Italy still sets the pace. Kidnappers everywhere will be sipping their grappa and taking notes on this low-cost, high-profile .

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