As the cover hastens to tell us, THESE DARK THINGS by Jan Merete Weiss introduces the Captain Natalia Monte series. This is a confident announcement, particularly in these turbulent publishing times. Yet the novel more than earns the inference that popular demand will require and beget the publication of further works featuring the characters and settings within.
The Soho Crime imprint is known for presenting quality crime fiction in the form of stories set in exotic places with characters to match. THESE DARK THINGS certainly continues that tradition, and then some. Monte is a captain with Italian police, or Carabinieri, in Naples. As the book opens, there is a strike by sanitation workers that results in garbage overflowing the streets. This creates a disturbing backdrop against Monte's investigation of an even more disturbing crime. A beautiful young university student named Teresa Steiner has been found in a church's burial crypt, the victim of a brutal murder.
Monte and her partner, Sergeant Pino Loriano, begin an examination that is hampered almost from the start by the limits unofficially placed upon their investigation, according to the culture and unwritten laws of the streets of Naples. Monte, a resident of Naples since her birth, knows these rules so well that they are practically second nature to her. The problem lies in part with the victim, who was popular in several senses of the word. It has been said that good girls go to heaven, but bad girls go everywhere. Indeed, Monte's investigation soon reveals that Steiner's list of sexual conquests potentially included everyone from clergy of the Holy Mother Church to the Camorra, which is best described as the Mafia's older, smarter and more dangerous brother. The Carabinieri enforces the law only to the extent to which the Camorra permits it to do so. As Monte is well aware, her investigation into Steiner's death may lead to her own assassination, not to mention those of her loved ones, if the trail she follows leads to the wrong people.
The slow realization of her mutual attraction to Loriano, who is ready and all too willing to consummate it, complicates matters; if they give in to their mutual desires, it will all but certainly result in a transfer for one and a career end for the other, should anyone find out. And eyes are everywhere. Monte's relationship with Loriano is not the only friendship that causes her difficulties, though. One of her friends since childhood is (to put it in the American vernacular) married to the mob, in one of those degree of separation situations of happenstance that leaves every resident of Naples separated by only a kiss or two on the cheek from every other. By the time the case is resolved, a number of subtle shifts in the Naples power structure have taken place, and not without Monte's explicit and implicit assistance.
Monte's ability to navigate the cultural currents and relationships that make law enforcement in Naples more of a wistful desire than a fact is what ultimately makes THESE DARK THINGS such an addicting and rapid read. These behavior quirks unique to Naples ultimately become more important than the actual whodunit aspect of the plot, which is discernible enough early on to those who subsist on a steady diet of mysteries. As is often the case, however, it is the journey --- and the traveling companions one encounters --- that will make a particular book a keeper. That, indeed, is the case with THESE DARK THINGS.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 6, 2011