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by Jan Merete Weiss
Soho, May 2011
217 pages
ISBN: 1569479380

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Early one morning an elderly woman is setting about her daily task. She is a bone cleaner, one who tends to the bones of the dead in the ossuary of a church that was once the centre of a Cult of the Dead, when the faithful venerated the anonymous remains of the departed in the hope that they would intercede for them from purgatory. But what the cleaner discovers this morning in the crypt is a freshly dead young woman, posed to look like an angel. She has been murdered.

With an opening like this, one expects to be launched into a grotesque serial-killer sort of thriller, full of occult references and creepy symbolism. But Jan Merete Weiss has other fish to fry in her debut thriller, first in a series starring Captain Natalia Monte of the Naples Carabinieri. Hers is a very modern story, though of course nothing in Naples is free from its often dark and curious past.

Natalia is called into the case because the body was found in a heritage site and it is part of the Carbinieri's mandate to protect cultural institutions. As she and her partner Sergeant Pino Loriano look deeper into the case, they are first drawn to the university, where the young woman was a student completing a thesis on the street shrines of Naples, shrines that are under the protection, so to speak, not only of the saints but of the Camorra, Naples' crime family, which takes its share of the offerings left by the faithful. (The award-winning film Gomorrah, by Matteo Garrone, paints a vivid portrait of the extent of the reach of the Camorra into the lives of ordinary Neapolitans.) It emerges that the dead young woman was herself somehow involved with a mob boss named Aldo Gambini as well as with her thesis advisor and with a blind monk living in a monastery attached to the church where her body was found.

Any investigation that approaches the mob is fraught with danger, as Natalia and Pino know only too well. And it is hard to forget the influence of the Camorra, as Naples is disappearing under mountains of garbage, the result of gang conflicts over trash-removal contracts. It is tempting to view the frequent allusions to the stench and the litter as a kind of metaphor for the corruption of the city itself, but the garbage in Naples is not a metaphor but continues to mount even as I write.

THESE DARK THINGS is a first novel and one written by a woman who seems to have no long-standing connection to Naples. All we are told of her is that she is an American living in New York, a poet and a university lecturer. Consequently, the city she describes in such detail seems to me to be seen with the eye of an outsider, one warmly taken with the place but not altogether at home there.

Still, Weiss has very decidedly broken new ground with this book. Not only is one hard-pressed to think of other contemporary mysteries appearing in English that are set in Naples (Florence, Venice, and Rome, even Milan, are far more popular) but the author departs a long way from the typically male-centred view of the mob. Not only has Natalia progressed remarkably far in a service that only admitted women within the last ten years, but her group of friends, women who as eleven-year-olds had sworn undying friendship, exchanging lipsticks rather than blood, are equally committed to making their way in the world, whichever side of the law they may find themselves on. Nor will they, as they swore over twenty years before, permit any man to come between them.

THESE DARK THINGS marks a very promising beginning to a series I am looking forward to with much interest. Naples is a city well worth a visit, but until they get this garbage business sorted, you might want to follow this engaging series rather than plan a trip in person.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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