edited by Giancarlo De Cataldo; translated from the Italian by Andrew Brown

Published by Bitter Lemon Press

319 pages, 2008






Death Is Beautiful

Reviewed by M. Wayne Cunningham

On their Web site, the folks at London-based Bitter Lemon Press boast: “Our books are entertaining and gripping crime fiction that exposes the dark side of foreign places. They explore what lies beneath the surface of the bustling life of cities such as Paris, Havana, Munich and Mexico City.” And now with the publication of the nine exciting stories in editor Giancarlo De Cataldo’s anthology, Crimini, you can add Bologna, Milan, Rome and Palermo as settings for noir tales that can bring a smile to the lips, a tear to the eye or a jolt to the imagination.

According to De Cataldo, himself an author, screenwriter and appeals court judge in Rome, three themes predominate in this collection. The first, as one might expect of any worthwhile noir anthology, is the theme of corruption, especially financial and moral. The second involves the growing wave of immigrants “that is perceived either as a threat or else as an unmissable opportunity for an old, tired, jaded country like Italy to renew itself.” And the third is the theme of success at any cost. Oh, and of course, members of the Mafia have roles to play here as well, whether at home or offshore.

Under De Cataldo’s practiced editorial eye, Crimini opens with a bang about a bust (TV soap-opera star Simona Somaini’s) in its lead story, “You Are My Treasure Chest,” by Niccolo Ammaniti and Antonio Manzini. Here, a drug-disoriented plastic surgeon named Paolo Bocchi, while operating on Somaini and about to be arrested by the Italian narcotics police, conceals an incriminating two-pound bag of coke in a most unlikely place, “as if the Coke Fairy herself had kindly and quietly suggested it.” The repository for the damning evidence thus becomes an integral part of Somaini’s left boob -- hence the title for this story, which includes a couple of comic bits about a Rohypnol kidnapping gone awry and the threatened public exposure of a television director’s surgically lengthened “dangler,” before ending with a botched operation, the hijacking of a burial urn and a mourner who snaps “like a demented ninja” prior to being shot by a police sniper. And true to De Cataldo’s forecast, there are references here to a Senegalese refugee, a Japanese architect, a Sudanese pastor, a Filipino maid, Russian drug pushers, prostitutes, arms sellers and various symbols of success.

In Carlo Lucarelli’s brief yarn, “The Third Shot,” immigrants play a much larger role. Flying Squad police officer Lara D’Angelo is caught in a turf war between Albanian and Moroccan drug peddlers in Bologna, at the same time as she deals with her own qualms of conscience after she incriminates a decorated narcotics department inspector in the firing of bullets that killed two Albanian drug dealers. Her habit of chewing the inside of her cheek leaves a taste “as metallic as when you lick a battery.” She’s got breast problems too, but unlike Somaini’s of the first story, hers involve a fetish about never removing her bra -- “not with Marco [her boyfriend] or with anyone else.” After suspecting that she’s been framed, her love-smitten partner is killed, although she’s the target. Then, D’Angelo is humiliated by her superiors, and next, she’s threatened with assassination by her enemies. But she resolves all of her problems in a final tension-filled, braless confrontation.

Sicilian Andrea Camilleri, the creator of the popular Inspector Montalbano series, brings his earlier theatrical interests to the fore in “A Series of Misunderstandings.” It’s a suspenseful story, written in a script-like style, about a telephone prank gone astray, a sadistic killer gone wild, a police investigation done right and a wrongful death avenged even as “almost everyone is [erroneously] convinced the murderer is a thief, an immigrant from some country outside the European Union.”

The immigrants in Massimo Carlotto’s action-adventure tale, “Death of an Informer,” are a group of Croatians led by 49-year-old Josip Persen, formerly the head of the Zagreb Ultras and involved with ethnic cleansing. Now he’s into drugs, chased by the Croatian Mafia, the Italian Customs and Excise drug squad and the local police. He’s also guilty of the execution-style killing of Padua police Inspector Giulio Campagna’s informants, Ortis and Naza Sabic, before being wounded and cozying up to the Chinese Mafia. Carlotto’s is a Rambo-style story with Campagna willing to break the law to revenge the death not only of Ortis and his wife, but of others close to him as well. The story is distinguished by its references to Inspector Campagna’s personal experiences, good and bad, with his wife, daughter and colleagues. Some background also comes from Carlotto’s own life on the run as a wrongly accused murderer, an episode he told in the book, Fugitive, which became the foundation for the film Il Fuggiasco (The Fugitive).

Marcello Fois’ pleasantly entertaining piece, “What’s Missing,” omits the blatant references to the immigrants that appear in Crimini’s other stories. But it’s nevertheless about morality and the struggle for power between a policeman and a candidate for mayor, both of whom are mixed up in the murder of the candidate’s grandmother, a nasty old lady whom nobody liked, including the artist with his perpetually open front door who lives across the hall. As Police Inspector Giacomo Curelli sets about like some Sherlockian sleuth to solve the crime, echoes of Holmes’ dictums reverberate in Curelli’s advice to his assistant not to prejudge the already apprehended artist, but to “[t]hink it all through in good order”; and with regard to the evidence of a painting, Curelli cautions him to remember, “What interests me is not what’s there, but what’s missing ... “ There’s even a Watsonian echo in Curelli’s statement, “Do try and listen, Marchini, just once in a while.”

Even Christmas in Crimini has its darker side, as editor De Cataldo depicts it in his own whimsical yarn, “The Boy Who Was Kidnapped by the Christmas Fairy.” De Cataldo calls up the sure-fire sympathetic characters of a dog, a child, a heart-of-gold whore masquerading in Rome as La Befana (The Christmas Fairy) and a Lithuanian white knight who rescues them. Not so sympathetic, however, is the weaselish Italian would-be kidnapper and his black-hearted accomplice, known only as the Slav, a mean bastard if ever there was one. Yet in the end, as De Cataldo shows, even a “noir fairy tale” can end happily ever after.

For the 60-year-old female protagonist, Miss Teresa, and her much younger upstairs neighbor, Marco, who feature in Diego De Silva’s emotionally charged “Teresa’s Lair,” there is no such happy-ever-after ending. The universal appeal of their story, having to do with forcible confinement, comes from the fact that it could have happened in any down-at-the heels tenement anywhere and been portrayed on any number of TV shows as an example of Stockholm syndrome. But its tension as it drives to its inevitable conclusion is palpable, its characters memorable and its storyline credible. “Teresa’s Lair” is one of the best stories in this collection.

Then there is the first-person narrative of Sandrone Dazieri’s “The Last Gag.” This is a throwback to the days of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade finding killers the old-fashioned way: by gumshoeing their around town with style and panache. But in this case, the town is Milan, and the stylish gumshoe is a former comic and ex-alcoholic cabaret owner, Sammy Donati. He’s been conned into helping to clear his ex-girlfriend of the murder of his quondam partner, while at the same time he makes out with a new girlfriend, the 35-year-old mother of an aspiring 12-year-old comic for whom Mom will do anything, and we mean anything. However, the anything of Dazieri’s story is pretty mundane compared to what a guest-of-honor starlet surrenders to gain a fleeting 15 seconds of fame before dropping dead on a prime-time TV show, leading the program’s host to hide out for four years in Guadeloupe. There, he’s hunted down in a hospital by a self-confessed sleazeball journalist and his 18-year-old niece, each of whom have their own reasons for cornering him. But before they’re done, they’ll learn a hair-raising lesson about a devil of a time on the TV show and who the real guest of honor (or was it guest of horror?) was. Dazieri’s tale is guaranteed to keep readers looking over their shoulders long after the last page has been turned.

A captivating survey of the best Italian noir authors and foremost stories about Italian crimes, cops and criminals, Crimini is definitely worth reading. It’s another feather in Bitter Lemon’s cap, as that publisher seeks to expose Italy’s dark side in print. | November 2008


M. Wayne Cunningham is a former community college English instructor and administrator, and once served as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. His reviews have appeared in Books in Canada, The Mystery Review, Mystery Readers Journal, The Vancouver Rain Review of Books and in a weekly column he formerly wrote for The Kamloops Daily News. He is a resident of Kamloops, British Columbia.