Friday, January 31, 2014

Italian Crime Fiction: THREADING THE NEEDLE by Gabriel Valjan

There is really no replacement for "The Sopranos" -- that addictive Mafia-style crime family show that held us captive for years -- unless it's watching entire seasons in re-run, or maybe retreating to a "Godfather" weekend with popcorn.

But there are ways forward, and reading the Roma Series from Gabriel Valjan is a good way to start.

THREADING THE NEEDLE is the third in this series, and Valjan isn't playing to conventions about Italian crime at all; instead, he gathers up recent European conflicts and spins fast-moving plot from them. This time he starts with Bianca Nerini, member of a team of very, very bright high-tech analysts tracking down international criminals. But Bianca is supposed to be resting and lying low, after her investigations in Wasp's Nest (and before that, in Roma) that connected her with online info that comes through sources only known to her by their avatars -- their role-playing faces and voices, sometimes as scary as their real personas. And she doesn't want to "go there" again.

But when young Charlie Brooks asks her for a crash meeting, kisses her abruptly, and takes off right away with professional (and successful) killers on his tail, Bianca feels at least a responsibility to make sure the messages he has managed to pass on to her reach their intended recipients ... even if she's not sure what they mean.

Even this low-level involvement is enough to start getting her friends into danger, though. U.S. Defense contracting, NATO and other international maneuvering with roots in the "peace" after Mussolini, corruption and competition among various Italian police forces -- it's all here, packed ith action and tension.

And for Bianca, until justice is served, the death of Charlie Brooks is pushing her to take risks:
Dismissive as it might sound, Charlie Brooks was just a kid, no matter how intelligent, how precocious he was in his studies or with his hacking skills. Twenty-three years old was nothing. She thought back to when she was twenty-three, when she had thought she knew all the answers to life, or thought she had a better idea than everyone else. The difference was that she had made it to twenty-four. This kid was dead and would be forever twenty-three.

The kid was dead.
Valjan's characters, from Bianca to investigator Isidore Farrugia to the irascible Gennaro, are memorable and worth following, in this book and the others in the series; the international terrorism and tech investigating ring true, and the European tensions -- which I double-checked for reference -- are intriguing and of ongoing concern. Although Valjan now lives in Malden, Mass., just outside Boston, he's traveled widely and brings the flavors of Italy with him.

It's sometimes hard to accept that a very basic printing job -- the page formats and jacket aren't up to what the major publishers can afford -- still encloses an espionage and detection novel worth reading. But after the first few pages, I knew I was committed to the end of the book ... and would be reading the two earlier books, and watching for upcoming titles (Valjan stays two titles ahead). Characters, plot, ideas, background: In THREADING THE NEEDLE, Valjan weaves it all into an international crime novel worth the read.

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