Showing posts with label Sicily. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sicily. Show all posts

18 November 2019

Local Color


When my late mother-in-law was very old, she developed a passion for Harlequin Romances. A booksellers dream, she ordered up what she called her “little books” by the case, and consumed them at the hair dresser, in the evening, waiting for a train or an appointment. They replaced her now arthritis-denied needlepoint for staving off tedium. She claimed that what she really liked about them was the local color. Her tastes ran to UK settings with local customs like afternoon tea (she had a sweet tooth) and a fair degree of pre-war quaintness.

Recently a couple of new mystery series have gotten me thinking, like my mother-in-law, about the charms of other societies, not just the geographic settings but the cultural ones as well. Sujata Massey has followed up her impressive debut, The Widows of Malabar Hill, about an ambitious young Parsi woman in 1920’s Bombay, with The Satapur Moonstone, set this time in a forested princely state outside the city. In both, the restrictions faced by middle and upper class women combine with carefully observed venues to add believable complications and challenges for her pioneering female lawyer and detective.

Perveen Mistry, apparently based on one of the author’s own female ancestors, has found a niche in the otherwise much-restricted legal system by catering to the legal needs of women in purdah. She, herself, moves relatively freely in her society, although possible pitfalls and dangers were vividly illustrated by her experiences in the initial novel.

In The Satapur Moonstone, Perveen is off in the hinterland, back when the term really had meaning. Parts of Satapur are cut off during the rainy season, with tracks only passable by palaquin – Massey gives a vivid account of the discomforts of this conveyance for both the passenger and the bearers – or on horseback. She also has to conduct delicate negotiations – neither too forward nor too deferential – with the males she encounters, including the Agent of the Raj, whose all-male station, she discovers to her dismay, is her only possible shelter.

The underlying mystery is neatly constructed, but I must confess that it is the curious customs, Perveen’s nicely-calibrated courtesy, and the picture of princely India with imperious royals, impoverished locals, and spectacularly crumbling royal estates that really bring enjoyment.

 If Massey’s Perveen Mistry is distinguished by her iron self control and her sensitivity to the different customs and values of Bombay’s heterogeneous community, Auntie Poldi of Mario Giordano’s Sicilian mysteries is off the charts in the opposite direction, a truly operatic character, or perhaps we should say, a Wagnerian character, because, though Auntie Poldi’s lamented husband was Sicilian, she is Bavarian. And larger than life.

In Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, she decamped to Sicily intending to commit suicide. Her plan involved large amounts of alcohol and seemed easy to accomplish given her weakness for drink. But Auntie’s suicide required a house with a sea view. Renovating this property, along with the beneficent interference of the Sicilian relatives, not to mention the salutary influence of a local murder mystery, keeps putting Poldi’s termination on hold. With her fabulous black wig, her caftans, her hobby of photographing handsome Italian policemen, and her appetites for food, drink, and romance, Poldi is an over-the-top character. And kind of nice to see, given that she is in her sixties.

 My own preference would be for Giordano to scale her back just a tad, but as described by her would-be-novelist nephew, she comes across as a genuine force of nature. Forces of nature being best enjoyed in smallish doses, it is fortunate that the Aunti Poldi stories have a great deal of Sicily as well as a great deal of the Bavarian diva. Sicilian food– abundant, apparently delicious and the pleasing obsession of half the characters – is a big player, as is Sicilian agriculture.

The novels are full of lovely groves of olives and oranges, flowers, ornamental palms and horticultural specimens, and vineyards thriving in the volcanic soil. In Giordano’s books, the island is a paradise, marred only by those so useful snakes, Mafioso and greedy multinationals, both of whom covet the island’s water supply in the newest, Aunti Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna. The plot is silly but the scenery is top flight. As my mother-in-law knew years ago, local color and a touch of the exotic have their place.

09 May 2015

How to Write Mob Comedies in your own Home Town, and not get Taken Out by the Family



Land of Ice and Snow, Smoggy Steeltown, and the Italian Mob
Or…
How to Write Mob Comedies in your own Home Town, and not get Taken Out by the Family

by Melodie Campbell

It all closed in on me at the launch of THE GODDAUGHTER mob caper in Hamilton. Eighty-five people stood waiting.

The local television station had cameras in my face.  So far, it had been an easy interview focused on my awards and comedy career. The fellow was charming.  I liked him a lot.  Then he dropped the bomb.

“So…have you ever met a member of the mob?”

I didn’t like him so much anymore.

Yikes!  Hesitation.   A lot of feet shuffling.

“Yes.” I said, very precisely. So precisely, that everyone in the room laughed nervously. “In fact, I had to wait until certain members of my family died before getting this book published. ‘Nuf said.”

The ‘nuf said’ was the closure.  He got it.  Being a smart lad, he even let it drop.

Because frankly, I was speaking the truth.  I did wait until certain people died.  Some of them were in Sicily, but more were in Canada.  Some even died from natural causes.  (“He died cleaning his rifle” was an unfortunate family expression, meaning something entirely different, if you get my drift.)

This made me think about how close you want to get in a book to real life.

As writers, we research a hell of a lot.  Of course, I did research for The Goddaughter series.  Some of the study was pretty close to home, as I riffed on memories from my childhood.

My first memory is of a family reunion at a remote farmhouse in Southern Ontario. I was not quite three, and tears were streaming down my face.  Big scary uncles picked me up. They tried to console me by speaking softly. But I couldn’t understand them because they were speaking in Italian, or more specifically, Sicilian.

Those were the days of Brio and cannoli after mass on Sunday mornings.   And gossip about other relatives, one of whom was a famous boxer.  My aunt’s friend, the singer (one of a trio of sisters) who could not escape the clutches of a mob underboss in the States; he wouldn’t let her go.  I remember the aunts clamming up about this, when I ventured into the room looking for Mom. 

I was a darling of the family, with dark curly hair and big evergreen eyes. Later, when I grew up curvy and was tall enough to model, they doted on me. So my memories of growing up in such a family are decidedly warped.

They were warm and loving.  Very witty.  Loads of fun.  And massively protective.

In the screwball comedy THE GODDAUGHTER REVENGE, you will find a mob family that is funny and rather delightful.  Gina loves them, but hates the business.  She is always trying to put it behind her, and somehow gets sucked back in to bail them out.  I wanted to show that ambivalence.  You are supposed to love your family and support them.  But what if your family is this one?

How close is too close to home? I do cut pretty close in describing Hamilton.  The streets are real. The names of the neighbourhoods are real. I even describe the location of the restaurant where the mob (in my books) hangs out. I changed the name, of course, because the last thing I want is readers thinking this hot resto is really a mob hangout.  And besides, it’s fun when fans email me to say, “When they all meet at La Paloma, did you really mean XXX?” Readers feel they’ve been part of an in-joke.

THE GODDAUGHTER series is meant to be laugh-out-loud funny.  But there is an adage that states: Comedy is tragedy barely averted.

No kidding.  I’ve been writing comedy all my adult life.




The Toronto Sun called her Canada's "Queen of Comedy."  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup. www.melodiecampbell.com