Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Crime Novel from Calabria, Italy, BLACK SOULS, New from Soho Crime

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Across the decades of the narrator’s life, Black Souls becomes as mysterious as a set of cave paintings or yesterday’s “tags” on a building.

Nordic noir, French crime fiction, Japanese, South African—none of those are as surprising as the new crime novel from Calabria, Italy, Black Souls by Gioacchino Criaco. Deep and slow, it ranges over the youth, coming of age, and violent criminality of a nearly nameless narrator. His love for the landscape and the men in his family is a warm and restless ocean in which the crimes of the book roll, surge, and multiply. From early kidnappings and killings that balance the powers around the farming family, they ease toward urban connections and at last the cream of the crime crop, the drug trade.

But in Criaco’s hands, this becomes a literary exploration of a timeless land where fathers and sons form the ultimate bonds of the community. Calabria is one of the “oldest” occupied parts of Italy (today the label is for the “toe” of the nation’s “boot” shape), with some 700,000 years of human presence. Once redolent with many languages and histories, it has become both more Italian and more intensely occupied by the ‘Ndrangheta, a family-based crime network now darker and larger than the Mafia.

Criaco binds this criminal nature to the natural landscape and the eons of myths that permeate the consciousness of the peoples there. When the novel’s narrator slaughters a wild bull, he spends a harrowing night in and out of sleep:
I thought I could hear a mournful bellowing. I saw the bull’s head staring at me with that terrible, artificial eye in the middle of his forehead. … An immense pain overtook me, I was aware that I was trapped in a nightmare, I tried to wake up and couldn’t, I got up and fell back down, and only when the pain had traveled to my core could I shake myself awake.

I found myself sitting up in the dark. Bino tenderly pressed a cup of hot coffee into my hands. "Did you hear them? … We are a part of the mountains, not their masters. Sometimes practicing evil is necessary to survive. Taking a life is always wrong But if you don’t give your conscience an alibi or a decoy, it will scream at you every night. Come, we have to appease them."
This mythic connection to centuries of choregraphed murder and revenge echoes through the book. “Black souls” are not cleansed, but held in balance, and evil is negotiated. Some innocence is allowed to remain, protected, and begins to represent the reason to struggle to reach that balance in each new round of crime and punishment.

Across the decades of the narrator’s life, Black Souls becomes as mysterious as a set of cave paintings or yesterday’s “tags” on a building: The connections among people matter here more than anything else, even more than avoiding evil itself.

There are few comparable crime novels today. Stuart Neville’s haunted fiction set in the Troubles of Ireland may come close; so, however, does Dostoevsky with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Make room for this book in the form of the “precious gift” that this criminal’s success is finally able to give to his father: “That money, even if it came late, too late for me, restored my father’s dignity.” 

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Deep and Probing Novel from Charles Fergus, A STRANGER HERE BELOW

What makes an author choose to write a particular book? It's a topic that can lead to strange new worlds. For Charles Fergus, a Vermont author best known for his natural history, the death of his own mother many years before took him into writing A STRANGER HERE BELOW. Set in Pennsylvania not long after the nation's birth, it fingers both a historical culture and a lingering effect from his own life. I liked it.

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

A slow, rich novel of a distant time and a man who is “Othered” in most aspects of his life.

In A Stranger Here Below, Gideon Stoltz, a Pennsyvania Dutchman (that is, from German settler stock), has become sheriff almost by accident in the growing town of Adamant, in 1835. Though the town is already making its mark economically with an iron foundry, and a range of wealth from ironmaster to thief, it’s only a hard day’s ride from frontier landscape and life. And some days, maybe not that far.

Through Gideon’s naive eyes, the layout of the town’s power structure begins to emerge. It’s based on force and violence as well as profit. And it has little of benefit for the women and children, whose voices mingle with old ways, as well as with the New World’s fresh forms of Christian worship. Gideon’s own marriage is a cross-cultural one, into a family of scoundrels and at least one sorcerous sort of grandmother. But it’s a heart’s truth marriage, and he clings to it as a series of deaths in the town slowly peel back the truth of two earlier deaths: murder for gain.

Underneath this, for Gideon, is the formative event of his young life: seeing his mother dead after an assault that’s never avenged. It haunts him even as he investigates crime for his town, and when he retreats to his much-loved wife to try to regain his footing, he stumbles into what he most fears: “I am thinking about how we are punished for loving,” he admits to her.
‘We fall in love, with life, with other people, with our kin. We love the land, and galloping on a horse, or singing hymns, or watching the clouds pile up in the sky, we love our dear wives and children …We love these things so much,’ he said, ‘that we can’t bear to think of being parted from them. When we see others torn away from life, by disease, or confusion of the mind, or the cruel actions of others …’ He stopped, could not go on.
His wife, named True, assures him that this pain requires belief in God’s plan and promises. She enquires about what’s upsetting him: the death of his friend the judge, who committed suicide, or a murdered boy he’s seen?
‘Both.’ And his memmi. Always his memmi. He saw for the thousandth time her ravaged body lying in its own blood.
Fergus’s first mystery follows more than a dozen books, including many explorations of the natural world. In this rural sheriff’s embrace of the world around him are the goodness and love that won’t allow a wrongful death to be covered up—and that in turn will disturb what peace he’s gained, at the deepest levels.

A slow, rich novel of a distant time and a man who is “Othered” in most aspects of his life, A Stranger Here Below is also an exploration of how a kind person can be drawn toward the dark revelations that crimesolving demands. For some, the book may be a bit too tender in places, yet this patina of affection can readily be crushed and scarred—as the sheriff’s investigation reveals.

Although the book is clearly crime fiction, it is equally an exploration of the soul in the presence of death and wrongdoing. Which is, after all, what a “stranger here below” can expect. 

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.