'The Collaborator': Taking on a modern-day Italian crime family

February 20, 2011

Immacolata Borelli, the quasi-heroine of Gerald Seymour's powerful new novel, is 25, tough, gorgeous and exceedingly spoiled. She's spoiled because she's the beloved daughter of the leaders of one of Naples's most powerful and ruthless crime families.

When we meet her, however, she's in London, and the family has problems. She's there to babysit her brother, who's living under an assumed name because he faces murder charges in Italy, and also so she can study accounting, the better to help manage the family fortune. Her father, the head of the crime family that his parents started during World War II, is in prison. But, not to worry, Immacolata's mother, who makes Lady Macbeth took like Mary Poppins, is running the family business quite well, with the assistance of an assassin called Il Pistole, who modestly admits, "I have killed more than forty men. I do not know exactly how many men because it is not important to me."

One day, walking in a London park, Immacolata meets a nice young man named Eddie Deacon, a teacher of English, and soon is sharing his bed and fixing him excellent Italian meals. Then she receives word that her best friend back in Italy has died. Knowing no details, she catches the first plane and hurries to the cemetery, expecting to be greeted warmly by her friend's grieving family. Instead, they call her a whore, knock her to the ground, spit on her and furiously explain that their daughter died of leukemia caused by the toxic wastes that Immacolata's family had for years been dumping near their village, a sideline that earned them tens of millions of euros.

Traumatized by her friend's death and this hatred, Immacolata returns to London and reaches a fateful decision: Her family is evil, and she will bring them down by telling all she knows to Italian prosecutors. Her family will disown her, of course, and have her killed if they can penetrate the protection the authorities will give her, but she boldly returns to Italy to send her mother, brothers, grandparents and several of their hired guns to prison.

She leaves London without saying goodbye to Eddie, who has no idea that she's part of a crime family. The poor fool is in love, so naturally he hops a plane to Naples and hastens to the Forcella neighborhood that her family holds in its iron grip. It's a great come-into-my-parlor moment. The family takes him prisoner and sends word to the now-despised Immacolata that, unless she walks away from the prosecutors, they will begin sending her various parts of her lover's body.

By now, several questions have arisen: How much does Immacolata really care about hapless Eddie? Will the prospect of his torture and death, or anything else, dissuade her from her vengeance? If not, will the family find a way to kill her?

That's the plot of the novel, but no summary can suggest its depth and texture. Seymour is not one to cut corners. He does his research, thinks hard about his story and gives us richly imagined novels that bristle with authenticity. Very few thriller writers tell us as much about their characters. Beyond that, he gives us vividly detailed portraits of Naples's criminal underbelly, of the operations of a crime family, of how hostages can be rescued, of the corruption of the Italian police - and of the honesty and courage of some police and prosecutors. We see crime families shooting down people in the street, confident that no one will testify against them. We're told of Immacolata's 88-year-old grandmother - who began the family's rise to power by recruiting respectable but starving women to prostitute themselves to GIs in 1943 - "She would have stood in line to slit the throat of Immacolata . . . and would happily have used a blunt knife."

It feels like a realistic portrait of a side of Naples that tourists rarely see - a city a priest calls "the centre of the western world's most successful criminal conspiracy" - and it's not a pretty one. However, Seymour has seen six of his 25 previous novels filmed for television, and to lighten our spirits, he gives us the bittersweet love story of his fearsome Juliet and her naive (but increasingly brave) Romeo. Can the two of them survive in this stupendously violent world? Is there hope for a happily-ever-after ending? You'll have to read the book to find out, and if you enjoy old-fashioned stories that are long on characterizations and short on cuteness, you'll probably enjoy it.

Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.

THE COLLABORATOR

By Gerald Seymour

Overlook. 474 pp. $25.95

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