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These Dark Things by Jan Weiss
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These Dark Things

by Jan Weiss

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There is the custom in Naples, Italy of the second burial. Officially, this practice has ceased decades ago, but it is an ancient ritual going back to the Egyptians. Mourners wait for a year for the body of a loved one to decompose, and then dig up the bones and place them in a bone box for the second burial. Neapolitans still have deep-seated superstitions about the dead. Perhaps it was not surprising that people here actually dressed in black so as not to be mistaken by the dead as living souls ripe for haunting.

These days, the few remaining bone cleaners, like Gina, collect the bones from the grave keepers and put them to rest in certain Neapolitan churches where the rite is quietly tolerated. One of these was the Church of Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio. One day, Gina encounters the relatively fresh body of young and beautiful Teresa Steiner, murdered and displayed.

Since the victim is found in a cultural shrine, the case falls to Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabinieri. She is a member of an elite group within the national police. This is a position she has worked long and hard for, becoming one of the rare women to reach this rank and stature. As Natalia begins to investigate with her partner, Sgt. Pino, several lines of investigation open up. Teresa was a student at the local university and also worked for a local crime organization that had the concession for collecting donations from the hundreds of local shrines.

At this time, Naples is a city in turmoil for many reasons. The main one is that the streets are lined with piles of rotting garbage that hinder the passage of pedestrians as well as road traffic, and that are emitting a stomach-turning stench that affects everyone's daily life. To make matters worse, the public health department is reporting an increasing number of cholera cases.

The Camorra, the Naples local criminal organization that runs the garbage service, refuses to collect it or allow anyone else to collect it, because they are at odds with the Mayor, who is pushing a new state-of-the-art incinerator. Those few brave citizens who had the gumption to move the garbage from in front their place of business were soon experiencing their first burial.

Older than the Mafia, the Camorra origins go back to Spain's brutal rule of Naples. It is a much more vicious and ruthless organization than the newer crime syndicates. It has no rules and it penetrates every aspect of life in Napoli. The Sicilian Mafia had once granted family members and innocent civilians immunity. In the case of the Camorra, if an offender were "in the wind," relatives, wives, and even children are not exempt from wrath and vengeance.

The Carabinieri are a national force that came into being out of distrust, to make certain that no ministry would have all the military and police power.To keep the police above the fray, members of the Carabineiri even have to get their spouses approved by their superiors after exhaustive background checks. Being friendly with anyone in the Camorra is grounds for dismissal. This was aside from the very real possibility that if there was a serious investigation into any criminal activities, the police and Carabinieri themselves were at risk, as were their families. The Camorra is actually like a second government, with its own internal rivalries, and it is here that the internal troubles spill out into the street.

Captain Natalia Monte walks a razor's edge in her job and in her life. Natalia, naturally, has had friends throughout her childhood who may now be associated in one way or another with the Camorra. Weiss really brings both Natalia and Pino to life. Pino's character is fleshed out well and is quite interesting. A Buddhist who rides a bicycle to work, Pino is a good balance to Natalia, who is a freer spirit, but who nonetheless is dogged and incorruptible. The next step either of them takes in this, or any other investigation, could be fatal.

Weiss portrays a Naples that should by all accounts be a beautiful place to live, if one is considering the weather, the architecture, the flowers and the food. But in La Bella Napoli, survival depends on walking a tightwire. I enjoyed the book tremendously, and hope to meet up with this intrepid duo again.
( )
  Condorena | Apr 2, 2013 |
My blog post about this book is at this link. ( )
  SuziQoregon | Mar 31, 2013 |
First Line: A large cypress tree arched over the graves, and a few clouds the color of peaches.

Captain Natalia Monte of the Italian Carabinieri may get to wear uniforms designed by Armani, but she's faced the same tough climb up the law enforcement ladder that all women have had to face. Monte works in the city in which she grew up-- Naples-- and Mt. Vesuvius with its varying colors of smoke plumes looms in the distance watching over all.

A beautiful young German college student has been murdered, her body carefully placed in the crypt beneath an ancient church. Monte has been assigned to investigate, but not only are there many suspects, she also finds her way hampered by the garbage strike that has deadlocked her beloved city with towering piles of stinking, rotting refuse.

The setting of this book is absolutely superb. I have seldom read a fiction book and come away having learned so much about a city. Weiss wove a Neapolitan spell around me using threads of beauty as well as ugliness when Monte's investigation takes her to the violent underbelly of the metropolitan area.

What didn't work so well for me were the plot and the characters. There were many plot threads, but the ending felt rushed and too neat for a place such as Naples. Monte's partner, Pino, was a more developed character than Monte, but they all felt "at a remove". The relationship between Monte and Pino took off too quickly, and I felt that it would have worked better if it had taken place over the span of a few books rather than all in the first. Just enough of Monte's backstory is given to make her interesting, and I'm hoping that more information will be forthcoming in future books. From the ending (which doesn't show her in the most flattering of lights), it appears that Monte will be a multi-faceted character who will grow and change.

Since I was absolutely riveted by the setting and culture of These Dark Things, I look forward to reading the next book in the series. I have high hopes that plotting and characterization will improve and match the city of Naples as a setting. ( )
  cathyskye | May 10, 2011 |
In the first book of Jan Merete Weiss' new Captain Natalia Monte series, we're off to a good start: she puts down an interesting framework with some intriguing characters and a lavish, yet often gritty, Italian cosmopolitian backdrop.

Monte herself is an interesting figure whose personal history we get some glimpses into, and we're given indications that her character will not be a static one, that it will grow and develop, which I think is promising in keeping any one detective novel interesting and keeping a series fresh. Pino, her partner, is quirky and likable, and neither is a "stereotypical" Italian in any way. I found that the relationship that develops between the two happens rather too sudddenly and seems rather forced and inevitable; perhaps it would have been something better developed across the course of many books instead of crammed into the plotline of one.

Weiss has a lot going on in just one novel. There's the ritualistic-appearing slaying that kicks off the mystery, which is quite eerie, chilling, and evocative. Then there's the garbage strike that permeates practically every page of the novel, dragging in a political and mob element. There's the theme of friendships that endure from childhood, which is very important here. The religious and academic lives also play a prominent role. With so many dueling themes, you're not going to get bored. You are, however, sometimes going to get "reading whiplash" going from one chapter to the next, as the novel seems to jump around from time to time with no real connection from chapter to chapter. It also leaves some characters underdeveloped-- something that will hopefully be remedied in future novels, as Weiss gets time to expand her fictional Naples and the people who populate it.

Her Naples bears special mention. It's a wonderful place, but not a dreamscape. It's no mythological place of perfect Italian beauty. Beauty is to be had here, and history, but there's also poverty and gritty reality. Weiss captures the many layers of Naples society beautifully: this is no one-dimensional portrait. Italian words and phrases are scattered throughout, but never ostentasiously, just enough to add realism and flavor.

The ending felt a bit rushed. There was so much build-up, so many thematic elements at play, and then it all folded up so quickly at the end-- it was too neat, happened too fast. There was a bit of predictability to some parts of it, too, that a seasoned mystery reader will pick up on (no spoilers in this review, though).

I will give the next book in this series a try, though. The characters were perhaps not fully drawn out yet, but it's a first entry in a series, so I don't expect full portraits yet. I hope for a little more narrative polish next time. Weiss has a lot of promise, and her Naples is one I hope to revisit. ( )
1 vote elvisettey | Apr 21, 2011 |
These Dark Things is an interesting and captivating mystery novel set in Naples, Italy. It's a pleasant and satisfying read, that leaves you craving for more.

Gina Falcone is one of the last "bone cleaners". Her job is to prepare the bones for the second burial, an ancient practice going back to Egyptians. When she goes to the local church to collect the bones for cleaning, she discovers a corpse of a beautiful young girl. The victim, a young student from Germany, has been brutally stabbed in the heart, yet not even a single drop of blood has been found near her body. Captain Natalia Monte, member of the RAS elite within the national police (Carabinieri), is called in to investigate the murder. She and her partner, Sergeant Pino Loriano, will do everything it takes to find the murderer.

It's nothing like I've ever read before. I was prepared to be served a simple murder mystery, instead I got an excellent mix of culture, history, crime, political issues, personal drama and even a tiny bit of romance. J.M. Weiss skillfully incorporated many interesting historical and cultural facts into solid and well-thought-out plot. The characters were brilliantly depicted and vivid, the detailed descriptions made even the minor ones stood out.
I found it really interesting to read about Italian traditions and customs, political issues and conflicts with local criminal organization (Camorra). I must say, I'm deeply impressed by the amount of research the author must have done for this book.

The mystery itself was a solid one. Just when I was starting to feel a little bit disappointed at how easily Natalia solved the murder, a few unexpected incidents and twists came up along the way and I finished the book with the soothing feeling of satisfaction. I can't say I got attached to the characters, nor was I especially fond of them. Despite the colorful and detailed descriptions, the characters lacked emotions and were a little bit... flat. But looking at the whole construction of the plot, I can understand why it seemed like it, after all there was so much going on on the 224 pages of the book. In the end I was pleasantly surprised at how the author concluded the story. What at first seemed like a simple and easy to solve mystery, suddenly gained a whole new perspective and so much more depth, I thought it was absolutely brilliant!

I would really like to get to know the characters better and see them solve more mysteries, so I'm definitely looking forward to the next installment in the series.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes a good mystery novel with an interesting cultural and historical background. You won't be disappointed! ( )
  Evie-Bookish | Apr 14, 2011 |
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Investigating a murder in the underground crypts of Naples, Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabinieri struggles to find a connection between the killing and Catholic shrine collection boxes, a lecherous professor, and the Camorra.

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