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The Jury Box

 By Steve Steinbock

In Italy they have an expression for crime novels—libri gialli,meaning “yellow books”—from the distinctive yellow covers of the paperbacks published in the 1930s. Italian crime fiction has a colorful history. In the mid 1940s Mussolini’s government banned mystery fiction altogether. English-speaking readers may be acquainted with the Italian settings of mysteries by American Donna Leon or Englishman Michael Dibdin, or perhaps thedarkly entertaining police procedurals of Italy’s own Andrea Camilleri. Today mysteries and thrillers are thriving in Italy. We lead off this column with four recent samples of libri gialli now available in English.

Donato Carrisi, The Lost Girls of Rome, Mulholland Books, $26.00. In this richly plotted novel, analyst Sandra Vega of the Rome police is following clues to the death of her husband when she comes across an ancient sect of Catholic priests, the penitenzieri, who use a vast network of confessions—among other resources—to set justice right. As Sandra pursues a mysterious scarred priest, he hunts for a serial killer holding a pregnant woman hostage. The priest is also being followed by a madman who arranges for murder victims’ families to have vengeance. An Interpol agent pursues them all through Rome, the Vatican, and the Ukraine.

Roberto Costantini, The Deliverance of Evil, Quercus, $26.95. Since the establishment of the FIFA World Cup, Italy has brought home the trophy four times. The 1982 and 2006 games provide bookends and background for this world-class thriller about a jaded police superintendent’s quest to solve a series of murders. On the eve of Italy’s 1982 victory, a pretty young intern at the Vatican is murdered. Michele Balistreri, then a reckless, womanizing police captain, fails to put the killer behind bars. Twenty-five years later, a lonely and tormented Balistreri pursues a killer now known as the Invisible Man who has left behind a string of victims, starting with the 1982 killing, whose names spell out a message—a plot device that is rarely seen outside Golden Age novels such as  those by Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. Commissario Balistreri is a complex character who reflects the political and ethnic tensions of modern Italy, in all its beauty and corruption, pride and shame, hope and regret.

Massimo Carlotto, The Master of Knots, World Noir, $15.00. Nightclub owner Marco “the Alligator” Buratti is no typical P.I. He and his two colleagues are ex-cons who color outside the lines of the law as they solve the problems of their clients. They’ve been hired by Mariano Giraldi, whose wife, an S&M model, has been kidnapped. Buratti and his team  un-cover a gang of sex merchants who trade in pain and death in this often witty, darkly satisfying novel.

Maurizio de Giovanni, Everyone in Their Place, World Noir, $17.00. Told in a much slower pace and style is this story set in 1931 Naples featuring Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi. Since childhood the commissario has been haunted by a supernatural ability to witness the final moments and hear the final words of murder victims. In a case involving the murder of a beautiful and sexually unrestrained duchess, Ricciardi and his food-conscious brigadier navigate the obstacles of  department politics, a powerful fascist aristocracy, and the Catholic church. Despite his unimpeachable morals and uncanny ability to solve murders, Ricciardi has a personality that makes him unlikeable and unapproachable to most of those around him. De Giovanni’s style is literate and cultured, and he sees the complex torment of a man and his times with a poetic eye. Some readers may find the style slow-going, but fans of thoughtful historical mysteries won’t want to miss this one.

Marisha Pessl, Night Film, Random House, $28.00. This beautifullydesigned novel about the pursuit of a reclusive horror-film maker follows investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who, five years earlier, was discredited after comparing film director Stanislas Cordova to Charles Manson and Jim Jones. When McGrath learns of the suicide of Cordova’s prodigy daughter, he is driven to learn the secrets behind the locked gates of Cordova’s world. Teaming up with his two young protégées, a precocious wanderer and a tenacious drug dealer, McGrath delves into the dark and tragic past of the filmmaker. The book features more than seventy pages of photographs, mock news articles and web pages, and a fictional Rolling Stone interview, among other documents. These materials are gimmicky, but they work effectively to advance the story and engage the reader. Night Film is hard to put down and hard to forget.

Anne Hillerman, Spider Woman’s Daughter, Harper, $26.99. After eighteen titles, Tony Hillerman’s series about Navajo tribal policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn came to an end with the author’s death in 2008. Now Hillerman’s daughter brings readers a new Leaphorn and Chee novel. In truth, this is not a story
of Chee and Leaphorn, but of Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, a Navajo police officer and the wife of Jim Chee. Joe Leaphorn is shot in the opening chapter, and remains in critical condition throughout the novel. After being taken off the case, Officer Manuelito remains determined to find out who shot her friend and mentor. Her search takes her to the world of Indian art and artifacts, and into a case handled by Leaphorn and Chee years earlier. Hillerman is successful not only at capturing the spirit of her father’s books, but also at adding her own emotional depth. 

Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, LB, $14.99 (TPB), $9.99 (e-book), $79.99 (signed limited hardcover). A new Lawrence Block nov-el is a cause for celebration.

Block’s style is always dry and witty, but his books are typically hardboiled. His Bernie Rhodenbarr novels are the exception, and the tone of this one’s especially light. The titular bookseller-by-day and burglar-by-night finds himself enmeshed in a sequence of larcenies involving obsessive collectors, most notably a collector of all things button-related. By the end Bernie manages to set everything right in a manner that would make Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot proud. 

Elizabeth Zelvin, Voyage of Strangers, Amazon Digital Services, e-book $0.99. Zelvin’s Agatha Award nominated short story “The Green Cross,” which appeared in EQMM (August 2010), told the story of a young Jewish sailor aboard Columbus’s ship at a time when it was illegal under Spanish law to be a Jew. This novel-length adventure returns Diego Mendoza to Barcelona where he and his sister, living under the shadow of the Inquisition, decide to seek freedom in the New Land. Traveling across Spain, they join Columbus for his second voyage, on which Mendoza’s sister must hide not only the fact that she is a Jew, but also that she is a girl. The story, suitable for all ages, is engaging and well researched, with the plight of the Hispaniola natives (the Taino) paralleling that of the Spanish Jews.

Several other new mysteries deserve attention. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller’s The Spook Lights Affair (Forge, $24.99) features 1890s P.I. duo Carpenter and Quincannon. Terence Faherty’s hero Owen Keane travels to Kenya in Eastward in Eden (Mystery Company, $26.00). Robert S. Levinson’s hard-edged Finders, Keepers, Losers, Weepers (Gale, $25.95) is set in 1989’s Indianapolis music scene. A college plagiarism case turns survivalist for Sheriff Dan Rhodes in Bill Crider’s Compound Murder (Minotaur, $24.99).

 © 2014 Steve Steinbock

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