Saturday, March 29, 2014

Crime Family Morality: Naples Crime Fiction from Jan Merete Weiss

When Jan Merete Weiss's debut crime novel, THESE DARK THINGS, emerged in 2011, it opened up a remarkable new area for Italian mystery, beyond the tender Venetian investigations of Donna Leon and Magdelen Nabb's classic Florentine series. Not only does Weiss's Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabiniere need to wrestle daily with the anti-women attitudes around her, inside her workplace and out on the street. But she also must find her way in an astoundingly immoral city, a location where the crime families of the Camorra control almost everything.

And in the remarkable second in Weiss's series, A FEW DROPS OF BLOOD, Natalia discovers the adult perspective on why the Camorra has risen to this strength, and why Naples accepts it: The deprivations of World War II and the long-lasting poverty of the region caused its people to embrace the paternal attentions of the wealthy criminals, whose code of morality included supporting widows, making sure churches had enough funds, even providing critical injections of cash for art museums.

Ah, art museums ... this is Natalia's forte. Before she found her way into the Carabiniere, she'd been an art history major, and her first crime-solving efforts dealt with art theft. But a quick mind, good choices, and well-solved cases have taken her much higher, now working with major crimes and regularly confronting murder. As A FEW CROPS OF BLOOD opens, Natalia receives her first female partner on the job, a Sicilian (surely that's a mark of survival, to have entered law enforcement in Sicily?), Carabiniere Angelina Cavatelli. Sure enough, Angelina is ready for investigations that call for probing organized crime and the histories of major families -- and, as Natalia quickly discovers, Angelina's brought on the job move, to her new home, her significant other ... a woman.

Since the first crime the pair tackle is a flashy and "artistically arranged" double murder of a pair of gay men (the bodies are found posed naked on a statue in a Contessa's garden), the new investigator has reason to worry that she's moved to a city where homophobia is even more dangerous than in Sicily. But Captain Natalia Monte -- familiar with the organizations involved, including an art museum -- can see more deeply into the situation.

And the fascination of this book is, Natalia's insight comes from growing up in Naples, with strong woman friends who straddle both sides of the law -- two in particular are so significant in the Camorra that Natalia's arch-enemy within her department scores points by surveilling Natalia and catching her at one of her regular get-togethers with crime wife Lola Nuovaletta and two other childhood friends.

But Weiss swiftly reveals that it's not the espionage within the department that Natalia has to worry about: It's her own divided sense of morality, as her loyalty to the strong, vivid, wonderful women in her life -- as well as an immature boyfriend -- carries her into doubting her ability to choose the "right" thing to do. And although she has a couple of strong mentors, she can't reveal all the details of her situation to either of them. It's going to be her shoulders that carry this weight.

I found the first couple of chapters awkward, but the plot is well twisted and compelling, and Captain Natalia Monte's actions and situations kept me eagerly turning the pages. We've seen (especially in war settings) plenty of crime fiction where men's friendships make the difference in survival of body and soul -- this is a rare new opportunity to women's bonds, both old-style and challenged, and to consider how they're adding richness to the landscape of investigation and values.

Way to go, Jan Merete Weiss!

The book won't be released until April 22, but considering how good this series already has become, I'd suggest pre-ordering a copy. I don't see an easy way to check on Weiss's planned author events, but she teaches in New York City and I'm hoping Soho Crime will boost her onto a tour, so we can all connect with her. I want to know more about this author; and definitely, I want to go explore "her" Naples, Italy.

No comments: