MASSIMO CARLOTTO MEETS me, empty-handed, outside his favourite gun shop. With his nervy entourage, fat Cuban cigar and gold watch, he sounds and looks like a mafia don as he crunches my fingers in a bruising handshake. But the brooding similarity is, perhaps, not too surprising. Bestselling author Carlotto - Italy's answer to Ian Rankin - spent seven years in prison for a murder he didn't commit and his best friends, still, are gangsters and ex-cons. 'At least,' he says with a half-smile, 'I will never run out of material.' Like many crime writers, he treads a fine line between fact and fiction. The only real difference between him and Alligator - his vaguely misogynist, jazz-loving jailbird-turned-gumshoe - is how much they drink. 'I drink more than him.' This is hard to imagine, despite the beige eyeballs. For Alligator - so-called for his love of a vile cocktail that unimaginably combines calvados, Drambuie and an apple - starts drinking at breakfast. 'It's true,' says Carlotto. 'I hold my calvados much better than he does.' Who am I to argue? Few would. With his rugby physique, unflinching gaze and 'connected' chums, Carlotto bristles. His latest novel, The Master of Knots (Orion), is a nasty tale of sado-masochism, death by fisting and snuff movies. 'Carlotto tells more than readers may care to know about the S&M scene,' wrote London's Sunday Telegraph. The depiction is so gruesomely accurate that the book has caused fury back home. 'I've received death threats, sure,' he says. 'Those perverts didn't like what I'd written. They telephoned, sent horrific e-mails, telling me exactly what they were going to do to me. Bugger me to death, basically. 'For about a month-and-a-half I was quite worried. They were very specific. But I found out who they were. And I telephoned them, told them to stop. They soon calmed down.' He makes it sound terribly simple. 'Look, everybody knows that I have links with the criminal underworld so if I say something people tend to listen.' That stare of his seldom wavers. Only psychopaths and missionaries are said never to blink. And Carlotto, I suspect, is a little of both. But he's nothing if not thorough, having researched the book for two years, posing on the internet as both a slave and as a master. Which did he prefer? 'No, no, no,' he says. 'It wasn't real. It was all virtual.' He's not one for an easy laugh, is Carlotto. His lurid past is never far away. At 13, he was already throwing Molotov cocktails. And by 19 he'd joined Lotta Continua, a hard-line left-wing action group. When, in 1976, he found the body of a girl he knew stabbed 59 times in her apartment, he was already well-known to police. Covered in her blood, he ran for help, but was arrested and sentenced to 18 years. Why was he covered in Margherita Magello's blood? For a novelist who spins convincing yarns, he's remarkably woolly about this episode. But he has a well-thumbed technique for coping with tricky questions. 'Ah, that's complicated,' he says. 'I'd met her a couple of times, just in the street. I heard shouting and a woman screaming. It was simply chance. I went to help. There were splashes of blood everywhere.' Why was he in her apartment block? He didn't live there. Carlotto says he was working undercover, investigating heroin trafficking. For who? 'For Lotta Continua.' Why? 'It's very complicated.' What's certain is that he went on the run, spending five years in Paris, Nicaragua and Mexico, with a clutch of fake passports and a wad of cash, posing as a Belgian professor. He must have been a very resourceful 19-year-old? 'No, I was desperate,' he says. 'My family helped. They gave me money. And whenever I could, I worked. In a pizzeria, as a translator, in a library. 'My hope was always that lawyers, in my absence, would clear my name. It was difficult, but Paris was full of refugees back then: South Americans, Poles, Iranians. They all helped me.' After two years, he fled to South America, moving on until he was finally expelled from Mexico. Why? He reels out his old apologia: 'That's extremely complicated.' He tells how he was mistaken for a fellow Italian, a bank robber called Massimo Carlotti. Crikey, this is one unlucky fellow. But his black farce is so implausible it's almost credible. 'Bad luck had me in its sights,' he says. 'I could have returned to France, but I'd given up hope. I'd lost all interest. I was broken, poor. I didn't know what to do. So, I flew back to Italy and gave myself up.' There, Carlotto was again jinxed. The warrant for his arrest had long since been lost. No one had been looking for him. 'I landed in Milan and I couldn't even get myself arrested,' he says. 'The police eventually found the paperwork in a drawer 11 days later.' He looks cross. 'It was a bitter disappointment to me to discover that I hadn't even been missed. I'd thought I was just a really good fugitive.' The Italian police, however, soon made up for their lapse. Carlotto was jailed and spent 18 months in solitary, in maximum security prisons. In Master of Knots, the three male protagonists - ex convicts - allude to thinly veiled sexual horrors witnessed or endured. Here, Carlotto writes from experience. 'They are true stories,' he says. 'My prison guards were sexually perverted. Sadistic. Rape, no. Torture, yes. I speak of it in my novels because I think it's important not to lose that memory.' Does writing help assuage these demons? Carlotto appears affronted. 'No, no, no. I don't believe at all in literature as therapy. I detest writers who write only for themselves. I write because crime writing is the literature of reality. There's no investigative journalism in Italy any longer. To find out the truth you have to read fiction.' This is very much dinner party rhetoric, but there's a truth there. 'There are no articles in Italy about organised crime and nobody - not even crime writers, not even me - writes about certain things,' he says. 'If you wrote, for example, about the Calabria mafia, you would be killed. No doubt.' Born to middle-class parents - his father ran a chemicals factory in Padova, north-eastern Italy - Carlotto survived remarkably well in prison. He became a 'scribe', writing love letters for inmates, even acting as an ad hoc lawyer - 'I actually won a couple of cases' - and brokering peace between warring factions. 'They called me Paciere,' he says proudly, puffing out his chest. 'The peacemaker.' In one prison, he says, he worked as a bookkeeper for the guards: 'My cell was like an office.' He makes his seven years sound like a slice of Shawshank Redemption. Of course, one shouldn't wholly trust a 48-year-old ex-convict who writes fiction for a living. But he has a certain convincing charm. 'I suppose I'm likeable because people have always wanted to help me. No one has ever said, 'No'. In jail, I was high profile, a rock star. MPs came to see me, poets campaigned, I was on TV.' Certainly, his case was notorious, and is studied still at universities in Italy. The case papers alone weigh an impressive 96kg. His 'Alligator' cocktail now tops many a smart bar menu in Rome, Milan and Turin. Its appeal? 'The apple is to eat and console yourself when the glass is empty,' he says. 'Nobody can drink more than four and nobody ever has.' And, in true cause celebre fashion, Carlotto has attracted thousands of female fans. He replies personally to the letters of each one. In 1993 - backed by a bevy of celebrity campaigners - he was pardoned by the Italian president and set free. Last year, he was given back his civil rights. 'I can run for president now,' he says. 'But I'd rather be acquitted. Maybe next year.' Carlotto's first book - the autobiographical Il Fuggiasco (The Fugitive) - was published a year after his release to great acclaim. Five Alligator novels later, he's a household name in Italy and France. 'My life began at 37,' he says. Just months after his release, he met Colomba, an accountant six years his junior who had been part of the team campaigning for his freedom. When they met, it was, evidently, love at first sight. 'They held a party for me and I saw this beautiful woman arriving with a great big cake, just for me,' he says. 'I had no doubts. We've been together ever since. Giovanni, our son, is nearly two. We live in Sardinia on a hilltop overlooking the sea. I'm a happy man.' He says he's not bitter about the wasted years. 'In a way, prison kept me young,' he says. 'I didn't live for 18 years. So, really, I'm only 30.' What does rankle, however, is that a murderer is still at large. 'If that girl had been killed today, the police would have been able to establish my innocence immediately,' he says. 'But DNA testing didn't exist in Italy back then. 'A hair was found under her nails. And in 1990, my defence team asked the investigators to test it. The court said, 'Yeah, OK'. But the hair disappeared overnight from the safe at the coroner's office. That was the end of the investigation.' Although Carlotto denies it, Alligator is very much his foil still. Aside from the drinking, his fictional detective also drives a Skoda and is impossible to live with. Alligator's Virna is as long-suffering as a Hardy heroine. Is Carlotto as difficult to live with? He shakes his head. 'Alligator, like me, will always have difficulties with women,' he says. 'People who come out of prison never have easy relationships. Half of my readers love Virna; the other half hate her.' He scratches his bearded chin. 'Maybe I'll kill her off,' he says. At least he doesn't say it's 'complicated'.