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.
Built by the Italians it is the longest aerial line of its kind in the world but it is of such strategic importance the army comes to realize they may have made a strategic mistake in constructing it. They fear it could fall into the hands of neighboring Ethiopia—whom they defeated in a colonial war just two years ago.
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.
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.
Unexpectedly, Gyles Aiscroft, a Rome-based British freelance foreign correspondent, and an old family friend of Emilia’s parents arrives in Asmara. Her father, Edmund Playfair, the senior intelligence officer at the British embassy in Rome, has asked Aiscroft to look in on her. 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 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.