translated by Antony Shugaar
As Ghislaine Maxwell’s lawyers poured out the unpleasant details of her poor-little-rich-girl upbringing in hopes of getting a lighter sentence for abetting Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes, it’s interesting to consider, for perspective, the women in Jennifer Hillier’s Things We Do in the Dark and Julie Clark’s The Lies I Tell. Their childhoods were far worse: Joelle Reyes suffered horrific physical abuse by her mother, and Meg Williams ended up living out of her car.
They’ve broken the law, too, but only to survive; a judge would have to be made of stone not to take pity on them. At least Maxwell grew up in mansions and had a yacht named after her, which certainly doesn’t excuse her bad daddy but must have helped ease the pain just a bit.
There were no yachts or Oxford education for Joelle, who as a teenager had to dance in a Toronto strip club to pay the bills. When some gang-related nastiness forces her to flee Canada for Seattle, she sheds her identity to become Paris Peralta, owner of a high-end yoga studio and later the wife of a popular and much older comedian. (It’s worth noting that Joelle is a Filipino in a very white country, and the object of some prejudice and fetishization.)
When we first meet her, she’s just been arrested for her husband’s murder, and the optics are terrible. The police arrive at their mansion to find a distraught Paris standing over a lifeless Jimmy Peralta with a straight razor in her hand.
The book moves back and forth between her past, as described by an old journalist friend, and the present, as Paris works on her defense. Is she capable of lethal violence? It seems unlikely, but Hillier’s sympathetic portrayal retains a tantalizing hint of ambiguity that keeps us guessing.
Nobody does the kind of neon-lit, low-life world the young Joelle inhabits like Hillier does, and it’s probably no coincidence that she prizes her well-thumbed paperbacks by Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz. She’s a lot like their rags-to-riches heroines, but Hillier is a more sophisticated writer; she tones down the fantasy and dispenses with the “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” schlock to make Paris a complex, fully human character.
Is she capable of lethal violence? It seems unlikely, but Jennifer Hillier’s sympathetic portrayal retains a tantalizing hint of ambiguity that keeps us guessing.
When you’re as famous as Paris Peralta, it’s too late for another identity switch. But Meg Williams, the shape-shifting leading lady of The Lies I Tell, has transformed herself many times by changing her look, profession, personality, and address. She’s a consummate con artist, but her goal isn’t wealth. Her targets are men who have committed wrongs against women. If she does fine along the way, so be it, but their pain is her real gain.
After 10 years, Meg has returned to her hometown of Los Angeles to go after the man who started her on this path by fleecing her mother out of her home, forcing the teenager to live in her car. He’s flourished in the meantime, building a construction empire and running for public office—an over-inflated balloon ready to burst. But Meg has a problem in the form of Kat Roberts, a journalist who blames Meg for an incident that ruined her life and who now plans to expose her. I’m not sure whether the motivation for Kat’s vendetta is strong enough to support such an obsessive campaign, but Clark’s goal is to put them together and let the games begin. Will the con woman be conned?
Part of the fun here is watching Meg in action, whether she’s impersonating a high-powered real-estate agent or a celebrity life coach. The opportunities for social satire are many. Also fun is the story of Meg’s first con, which starts as a way to cadge a decent meal and becomes something much larger. The mark is a handsome high-school principal who victimizes his under-age female students; the way the talented novice dismantles his life is a work of art.
Will Julie Clark’s con woman be conned?
What Pasquale Granato does with bread is also a work of art. Everyone in Naples says so, until the genius baker is shot to death in the alley next to his bakery. The local magistrate says it’s an open-and-shut case of Camorra payback for testimony about a murder that Granato witnessed. But he’s since recanted, and the killer’s M.O. looks unprofessional. What hit man uses a .22 at close range and misses several times? Two of the Bastards of Pizzofalcone turn up at the scene, which infuriates the ambitious prosecutor, who wants to hang on to his anti-Mafia bona fides.
The Bastards are well known in Italy, if not directly from Maurizio de Giovanni’s books then from the popular Rai TV show inspired by it. They’re a group of misfit cops stuck in the constantly threatened police station of the Pizzofalcone area because they don’t play well with others. Only one fits anyone’s idea of a conventional detective, Lojacono, and he has been unfairly tainted by slander about leaks to the Mafia. The others are like Marvel characters with negative superpowers—one has a violent temper, another is a caricature of American TV cops, one is too old, another has an unhealthy thing for weapons, and so on. But together this team of underdogs manages to solve cases and forestall the closing of their department time and again.
Lojacono decides to look at the baker’s murder through a more personal lens; apparently living and working with the perfectionist of pane was no picnic, and several suspects emerge quite close to home. Meanwhile, subplots involving a baby rescued from a dumpster, a couple of secret affairs, and a bizarre stalking case are braided together like challah (probably not made at Granato’s bakery) to produce a yeasty, irresistible loaf loaded with Neapolitan flavor.
Though Bread for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone is the fifth in de Giovanni’s series, his strong commitment to his characters and engaging tone—with all due credit to his translator, Antony Shugaar—never flags.
You really can’t go wrong with anything written by de Giovanni, including his Commissario Ricciardi series, but his one stand-alone mystery is special. Please seek out The Crocodile (2012), which gives us the origin story of the laconic and damaged Sicilian detective Lojacono, who’s investigating a serial killer known as “the Crocodile,” due to the tear-stained tissues he leaves behind at his murder scenes.
This is not a typical frantic gore-fest but a masterpiece of restraint about a cerebral and meticulous killer whose three young victims seem to share no connections. It’s easy for an ordinary man to dissolve into the raucous crowds of Naples, and a grim challenge for the police to find him before he claims a fourth.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City