The Four Corners of Palermo

The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this, though with less success.

The Four Corners of Palermo is not a novel but a collection of four episodes. Each chapter takes the hero, a gritty young crime reporter, to a different quarter of the city, where he finds a new noir crime scene and a new Venus-like lover. In the first chapter, he pieces together the family drama behind a shootout in the streets. The second has him investigating car bombings, and the third chasing a father who kidnapped his own children. The fourth has him befriending a daughter whose father is found beheaded in a town square, and ultimately deciding not to publish what he learns.

Di Piazza’s sensational material and nostalgic memory of the 1980s make his stories pleasurable, though vapid. The book suffers for its episodic structure, which leaves little opportunity for the nameless reporter to make much of an impression on the reader, and even less opportunity for him to learn something. A cast of shallow, personality-free female characters surrounds a “Gary Stu” protagonist, who runs from fashion model to murder scene without a misstep. It is a fun noir romp told in cinematic jump-cut scenes, but not a gratifying novel.

A former crime reporter, Di Piazza is clearly writing from experience. His bloody streets and severed heads are raw and vivid. But most disturbing—and, sadly, perhaps most realistic—is his depiction of journalistic ethics in a city under Mafia rule. Di Piazza’s hero lies to sources about his identity, allows a source to retroactively declare an interview off-the-record, and finally decides that keeping the truth buried is the only way to avoid further violence. “Don’t let the press write the whole truth,” he decides. While this may be realistic in a city that lives under constant fear of violence, it makes a disappointing end to the book. And it is surprising for an idealistic reporter who has not backed out of reporting the previous episodes. Anyone looking for a glimpse of gutsy, uncompromised reporting on Italian organized crime would be better off turning to Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s 2006 “non-fiction novel” on the brutal Neapolitan mob. But remember that its author will spend the rest of his life under a 24-hour police escort, fearing reprisal. Maybe Di Piazza’s fictional reporter should not be faulted for protecting his safety.

Di Piazza’s book drips with nostalgia. It is peppered with references to Pink Floyd and John Coltrane that admirers of the era will enjoy. His loving details of the city are less successful, however. The author’s Palermo never becomes more than a lifeless backdrop before which his reporter runs. This is despite Di Piazza’s apparent attempts to glorify the city by throwing in landmarks or descriptions of gelato and sfincione pizza that sound as if written by Sicily’s tourism bureau. He may convince you that Sicily has beautiful views and rich food, but will not leave you with vivid images of Palermo nor any burning wanderlust. Given the book’s title and efforts, this is a disappointment.

While I know from experience the challenges of Italian-to-English translation, I find Shugaar’s translation a bit too literal for my taste. This is most jarring in moments when Shugaar retains the Italian fondness for colons and semicolons. It works well in some instances, but can seem quite misplaced in street dialogue (as in, “Don’t talk crap: we tell you to go kill that traitor to his family and when you come back you’ve let him shoot you.”). Fortunately, Shugaar hits his stride in a few of the book’s most exciting scenes, producing some beautiful moments. The strongest passages have the reporter discovering his lover’s addiction, falling in love with a beautiful but tortured fashion model, and sneaking into prison to visit a key witness.

Di Piazza’s book is a loving, though sometimes dull, portrait of a legendary city. Despite a few chilling passages, its noir verve does not come near living up to the author’s hopeful nods to Dashiell Hammett. Four Corners of Palermo makes a fun sensationalist read for lovers of Mafia fiction, but not a literary novel.

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