By Maurizio de Giovanni

Europa editions, July 2, 2013 ($17.00)

ISBN-13: 978-1-69045-119-6
Trade paperback

Reviewed by Sam Waas

One of the benefits of mystery fiction is that these books provide an insider's glimpse into other places around the world and offer the reader a bargain Cook's tour. THE CROCODILE is one of these novels, set in modern Naples, an ancient and thriving seaport of over three million, located on the west coast of southern Italy.

We Americans may have difficulty envisioning the immense layers of culture and history that define most European cities. We only have a few examples ourselves — San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans perhaps — and these are relative newcomers compared with a city such as Naples. It's also easy to typecast Italy based upon romanticized movies or TV. We tend to imagine sleepy shops, the plaintive accordion, and quaint citizenry, men in shabby jackets lounging at outdoor cafes, women wearing headscarves and always buying apples.

But this is no longer the nineteenth century, and the truth of Naples is instead more harsh, with heavy traffic, pollution, an indifferent and busy urban lifestyle that would be easily recognizable in any American metropolis. The old world is still buried there, and the juxtaposition between these two eras can provide stark images and vivid contrasts. Modern crime novels often present these portraits superbly.

Police inspector Giuseppe Lojacono has been transferred to Naples because he was wrongly accused of collusion with the Mafia in his home, Sicily. And the transfer is not only lateral, it's punitive. Nothing could be proven (and he is in fact innocent) but Naples is a convenient dumping ground for him to serve out his career in isolation, carried on the police payroll as a token but forbidden any real crime work. Wife and teenage daughter relocated for their safety, estranged and angry at his supposed complicity, Lojacono now spends his lonely office hours playing computer poker.

Enter the Crocodile, the name given by the press to a stealthy serial killer who is preying upon young teens, three thus far, the murders seemingly unrelated but surely somehow connected. A fiery young assistant DA, Laura Piras, finds in Lojacono a clever and intelligent detective, and recruits him into her cadre to search for the Crocodile.

It's a race against time, of course, because no one knows when the killer will strike again. And the police must also fight against the inertia and lethargy of present day Italian culture, which has evolved from a close-knit society into a detached and insensitive postmodern world. Thus all the elements present themselves for a superbly entertaining mystery thriller.

I could only wish that this novel were better realized. Sadly, the narrative is rather flat and lifeless, with descriptions of characters and their surroundings more like a second rate travelogue instead of a lively modern novel. Naples is, from all accounts, a richly endowed city, but the narrative rarely provides us with vibrant images or even strong descriptions of concealed rot or decay. Instead, it's all a poorly realized veneer.

Dialogue is also undistinguished, and suffers from a flaw that I've often discussed, that different characters do not speak with unique voices and instead all sound alike, using similar syntax and vocabulary. Even worldly teenagers have conversations composed of long complete sentences instead of the staccato and slang-ridden speech patterns we know they use.

Some might think that these flaws lie in the translation from Italian to English. I cannot say with certainty, but errors in professional translation are normally apparent as small grammatical and mechanical mistakes and would not alter the entire contextual structure of a novel. I'm by no means competent in Italian but I do know it's as crisp and eloquent as any other modern language, so the original cannot have been so different as to lose its strength in translation. I can only offer novels like Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, the translation of which is brilliant and conveys the full complexity and humor of the original.

The plot itself is also too detached from reality. One aspect of modern crime fiction is its verisimilitude, its depiction of believable story lines. The Crocodile is instead driven by what seems a very nebulous motive that doesn't ring true, and his techniques belong in a museum of inexplicable Victorian mystery plotlines, because real killers don't create intricate schemes. They just kill. If the author wishes to write within the noir subgenre, he must abandon fancifully plotted murders or tenuous motives. At the end, the author also pulls the rug out from under the reader's feet by radically reversing the somewhat placid tone previously set.

I wish THE CROCODILE were a better novel, because the pieces are all present and the author is certainly no hack. But the writing is sadly enervated and lacking in energy. Perhaps a more engaged editor could have encouraged a sharper novel.

THE CROCODILE isn't a bad book and it's certainly a modestly entertaining read. Readers who prefer a quietly paced and sedate style may enjoy the novel. I cannot however recommend it with any great enthusiasm.

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