Well, it’s been a while since I last read a detective novel. And, although I’d planned to read Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” before reading the next novel in Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” series, I ended up reading a modern detective novel from 2017 called “May You Burn” by Jan Merete Weiss instead.
This was a book that my mum had recently won in a magazine competition and, since she isn’t a fan of detective fiction, she offered it to me. Since I hadn’t heard of the author and since it was a shiny new book (since I mostly read second-hand books, I’m always surprised by new books), I decided to check it out.
So, let’s take a look at “May You Burn”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.
The novel begins in the Italian city of Naples, where Carabinieri captain Natalia Monte has been called out to investigate an art theft from a church. However, a while after her investigation begins, she also ends up being drawn into investigating the murder of a Roma street musician in an alleyway near a local marketplace….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a reasonably good detective story. It sits somewhere between a police procedural (eg: initially, it reminded me a little bit of an Italian version of “The Bill“), a drama/literary novel and a more traditional detective story. It’s the sort of thing that would probably be absolutely perfect for a TV adaptation on BBC4.
The detective elements of the story involve a good mixture of deductions made from physical evidence and evidence gained through interviews and conversations. Yet, the detective elements of this story sometimes don’t feel quite as focused as they should be.
In a way, it could be said that this story takes a more “realistic” approach to detective fiction (as opposed to a more traditional Agatha Christie/Conan Doyle-style focus on a small group of suspects). And, although this helps to add drama to the story, the detective elements sometimes feel a little bit like a background element. Whilst the conclusion to the mystery certainly packs an emotional punch and there’s also an intriguing plot twist or two, the detective elements of the story sometimes feel a little understated. Even so, everything comes together fairly well in the later parts of the story.
But, this is a story that is as much about the characters as it is about Natalia’s investigation. And, the characters here are all reasonably well written and come across as reasonably realistic. Natalia is a fairly interesting protagonist since, because she grew up in the area she works in, some of the local Camorra gangsters are people she grew up with. So, she sometimes finds herself torn between duty and old friendships. Not only that, she’s also subject to some internal friction within the Carabinieri and is involved in a romantic sub-plot with a Roma lawyer (Claudio).
One of the major themes in this novel is the theme of not belonging and this is explored through both Natalia’s complicated relationship with some of her childhood friends (one of whom, Lola, is involved with organised crime) and the unease with which some of her fellow officers view her because of these friendships. She isn’t quite at home amongst her old friends, or amongst the officers at her job. This theme of not belonging is also explored through Claudio’s complicated relationship with the local Roma, some of whom despise him for living outside the encampment.
Another interesting theme in this novel is art and music. And, since Caravaggio is one of my favourite historical artists, it was pretty cool to see quite a few references to him (and his contemporaries) throughout the story. And, if you’re interested in classical music, then the novel’s musical references (eg: various types of violins, various classical pieces) will probably delight you too.
Weiss’ third-person narration is reasonably good and it combines the kind of descriptive narration that you’d expect to see in a literary novel with the more matter-of-fact narration that you’d expect to see in a modern detective story. Likewise, the dialogue in this novel is also reasonably good too and seems fairly realistic. Although I’ve never been to Italy, the novel’s descriptions of Naples contain a good balance between more stylised/romanticised descriptions and more “ordinary” realistic/gritty descriptions of a modern city.
However, although the narration in this novel is reasonably good, the publisher should really have paid more attention to proof-reading (in the edition that I read). Although I’m not usually one to nitpick about errors, there were a few fairly noticeable ones here.
These include a couple of omitted words (eg: “I him leave” on page 12 etc..), a misplaced comma on page 231 and, during a description of a bell on page 155, the word “peel” is used instead of “peal”. Although I’d normally be willing to overlook the occasional error or two, it’s a little surprising to see several of them in a new professionally- published novel. Still, it is easy to work out what is meant from the context and these errors didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the novel.
In terms of the length and pacing, it’s reasonably good. At 292 pages, this novel doesn’t feel too long. And, although the story sometimes travels at a slightly leisurely pace, nothing in it really felt like filler and it doesn’t really feel like a “slow” novel. Yes, I’d have liked to have seen slightly more of a consistent focus on the central mystery of the story, but all of the other stuff helps to add background, depth and character to the story. So, this isn’t a major criticism.
All in all, this is a reasonably good detective novel. It’s a little bit more on the literary/drama side of things, although the detective-based elements of the story all work reasonably well (and are often slightly more like a “realistic” detective story than a more traditional detective story). The characters, atmosphere and dialogue in this story are also fairly good too. However, the publisher probably should have paid more attention to proof-reading.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.