Gina Falcone, an elderly woman, is a bone cleaner. She collects the bones of those who have been dead long enough that the flesh is gone. She cleans them and takes them to the churches around Naples where, in the cloisters and catacombs under the city, they become part of the macabre dance that is religion and superstition in parts of Italy. It is in one of these places that Gina finds the body of Teresa Steiner, a student from Germany. Teresa has been posed in a tableau familiar to those who have a memory of such things from time immemorial.
Captain Natalia Monte and her sergeant, Pino Loriano, are called to the scene because they are Carabinieri and it is this branch of Italy’s many police groups who are charged with the protection of cultural centers of which there are more than can be imagined in Italy. Very soon into the investigation Natalia learns that there is another reason this has fallen into the lap of the Carabinieri in Naples – they are responsible for criminal activities associated with the Camorra, Naples home-grown answer to La Cosa Nostra in Sicily.
With the introduction of the Camorra into a story that ties into the Catholic Church and the cultural beliefs of the Neapolitans, the story goes off in a few directions. It is a story that centers on women, the murder victim, Teresa, Natalia, and Natalia’s two best friends, Lola, whose husband is involved with the Camorra, and Mariel, a bookstore owner. Natalia and her friends have grown up in poverty in one of the worst slums of Naples but all have risen above the circumstances of their births, Natalia and Mariel through intelligence and determination, and Lola through marriage to a killer. The women are close, meeting whenever possible, but always in secret because a relationship between Natalia and Lola would mean the end of Natalia’s career. Lola’s relationship with a captain in the Carabinieri would not be helpful in the circle to which her husband belongs.
The Naples of THESE DARK THINGS is dark. There is little description of the cultural heritage or the natural beauty of the area. Instead, the author wraps the story in the man-made disaster that has defined Naples since the mid-1990’s. The Camorra had control of the waste management system of the area, an incredibly lucrative benefice in that other countries in Europe, as well as other areas of Italy, could sell their dangerous waste products to the Camorra for illegal disposal rather than follow the guidelines established to protect the people, the land, and the water from toxic waste. When the government of Naples announced its plan to build incinerators to handle the waste, the Camorra stopped collecting the bags from the city streets. It was left to rot, causing illness and depressing the economy of Naples when restaurants and food stores had to do business among the noisome fumes of garbage.
Weiss’ use of a very real problem created by very dangerous people is courageous. One of the most stunning books I have read in the past few years is GOMORRAH by Roberto Saviano. The title refers to the Biblical Gomorrah because, as Naples is today, it was a city steeped in sin and without the will to atone for its crimes.
I wrote this for an Amazon discussion group after I read the book in 2008: “GOMORRAH doesn’t fall into categories that work for fiction. Saviano worked undercover in the areas around Naples that are bases for most of the illegal activity in Italy. The purpose of the families is to wield power through fear and to do that they must have money. The groups are involved in making copies of Italian designer clothing. One story is about a man who makes a suit based on measurements he is given; he sees the suit in a celebrity magazine. It is worn by Angelina Jolie. He wants some recognition and extra money because of his success; instead he is required to drive a truck endless hours over roads that are barely tracks. Locking his hands around the steering wheel ruin the dexterity he had and end any hope he had that he would be able to continue making clothes.The book exudes brutality. The reader cannot keep up with the number of deaths cataloged in this report. There are hundreds of names mentioned as well as regions of Italy that the tourists aren’t likely to find.
The Camorra and the Mafia are despicable groups who destroy everyone around them while at the same time convincing these people that their safety lies in the protection they offer. When I was teaching in an enclave that had connections to organized crime, it was a joke to hear that there were no drugs in the neighborhood because the Mafia wouldn’t handle them. That was a joke played on people who thought these people believed lives were more important than money and power.”
Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, women and children are not protected within the Camorra. For those of us who have seen any, or all, of the Godfather movies, the message is given that the work is the work of the men. Women don’t know from where the money comes that allow them a lifestyle to which they were not born. If they suspect, they don’t let on. In GOMORRAH, Saviano describes a drive-by shooting in which a girl, sitting in front of her home, eating an ice cream, is collateral damage. The Mafia is as brutal an organization as can be found at any point in history, but it did/does manage to police itself according to its own standards. The Camorra is a different entity.
As this is the beginning of a series, I hope, it is likely that most of Captain Natalia Monte’s time in subsequent books is going to involve dealing with the Camorra. Weiss does not provide an ending that isn’t realistic to the setting. This ended a bit too quickly and the killer of Teresa isn’t a surprise but the books is irresistible. Once started, it begs to be finished.