Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Jan Marete Weiss, These Dark Things (Captain Natalia Monte 1)
The beginning of These Dark Things, Jan Marete Weiss's new police procedural set in Naples, shows off the author's strengths, description and scene-setting. The crime scene in the crypts and ossuaries of a church aptly named for the souls in purgatory is marvelous, and Weiss goes on to give a first-rate portrait of the purgatorial Naples of today, the Camorra, corruption, and garbage with Vesuvius in the background. The writing is also first-rate, except for a certain stiffness in the dialogue, and the characters and plot are set up in interesting ways: a German student who knows too much about the city's street shrines (and the contract that the Mob has with the Church to collect the donations from the shrines), Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabinieri and her Buddhist partner, various secondary characters from the Church, the University, the Camorra, and Natalia's life.
But neither the characters nor the plot are really developed. It was the descriptions of Naples that kept me reading; except for the power of the imagery, I might not have finished this relatively short (224pp) book. The characters don't progress beyond their initial framing, and the plot is complicated but undeveloped (it's like a string of incidents, without much connection from one to the other). When the solution to the original murder comes along, and the violent consequences to the other plotlines follow, the reader isn't surprised or moved—it's just more stuff added to the string.
But Weiss's writing does promise something that I hope can be accomplished in future novels in the series, enough that I will surely read them when they arrive in print. On a recommendation from someone very well informed about Italian crime fiction, I recently read two other novels in which the setting is the main interest, both by John Grisham (not my usual cup of tea). The novels are The Broker (set in Bologna) and Playing for Pizza (set in Parma, but not a crime novel). Grisham, of course, does know how to construct a plot and can certainly portray three-dimensional characters. But it is mostly a very good tour of these cities of Emilia-Romagna that I took away from the books (and I'd definitely pass along the recommendation of both books on that score). But Weiss and these two efforts by Grisham prove to be evidence that contradicts a complaint heard not long ago that crime fiction is just literary tourism: these books are very good as tourism but do not rise to the level of the best international crime writing, whether about Italy or the rest of the world, writing that uses these settings to construct full, complex, and rewarding reading experiences.