This is a review of the book The Namesake, by Conor Fitzgerald. The novel is an Italian crime story, and follows an American-born police commissioner, Alec Blume, as he is drawn into the world of the Calabrian mafia.
I quite enjoy crime fiction. I have a real weakness for a well-written whodunnit, and find it easy to lose myself in that atmosphere. However, I am unused to Italian crime stories, aside from the odd television series like Inspector Montalbano and Rex in Rome. And yes, this does make a difference. For example, the judicial processes in Italy are quite different from what you would see in your usual American or British crime story, in that the judiciary are involved in the investigation from the start, rather than just the trial. For someone unfamiliar with this, it can take some getting used to.
The other thing that makes Italian crime stories different is the common inclusion of the Mafia or other organised crime. Again, if you’re familiar with how it all works and how those families go about their activities, then that’s fine … but if you’re not, it can be a little bewildering.
Of both of these there was some explanation in the glossary at the end, which was definitely welcome. For me, though, it didn’t quite go far enough – while we learnt the equivalents in the UK and US of Blume’s position in the police force, there was no explanation of exactly what role a magistrate plays in a criminal investigation. Even with my smattering of Italian television, I still don’t really understand how that works.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that there were some aspects to this book that I had trouble following. The intricacies of familial structure within the Calabrian community was a little confusing to my uninitiated mind, and at times I felt there were too many aspects to the narrative. Yes, they were all joined up and linked at the end, but it felt a little like a marathon to get them there.
That said, like all good crime fiction I did enjoy it. Trying not to ruin it for anyone with spoilers, I found the Konrad Hoffman story very enjoyable, and I liked the way we got to know those on different sides of the law, so that their actions became more understandable than they would perhaps have been otherwise. Alec Blume was an interesting character in his own right, too, and I felt a genuine sadness when he found the burnt remains of his trusty shellac-coated suitcase. I would have liked to see more of Caterina, and indeed of Matteo Arconti, the murder of whose namesake gave the story its title, but then again this is the third in a series of Alec Blume stories, so perhaps if I were to read the first two I would get more of that aspect of his life.
All in all, it was an entertaining book. When everything came together at the end it was much more satisfying than I had expected it to be, and I feel I have a much better understanding of not just the Italian police and organised crime, but of Italy itself. Sure, it wasn’t all flattering, but that made it feel all the more real and all the more believable. If you like crime novels, it’s well worth checking out.