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‘Murder in Matera’ review: Helene Stapinski investigates a murder in her 19th century Italian family

Helene Stapinski went to Italy to research her

Helene Stapinski went to Italy to research her crime story and family memoir, "Murder in Matera." Credit: Lisa Bauso

MURDER IN MATERA: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy, by Helene Stapinski. Dey Street/William Morrow, 300 pp., $26.99.

There’s an expression that weaves its way through Helene Stapinski’s union of crime story and family memoir: Leave the dead in peace. She doesn’t.

“Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy” starts as an inquiry that takes Stapinski from Jersey City, New Jersey, to the city of Bernalda, on the instep of the Italian boot, in the region of Basilicata.

Stapinski, a journalist and author of “Five-Fingered Discount: A Crooked Family History,” seeks the true story of her great-great-grandmother Vita, an ironic name for someone whose handed-down tale identified her as a murderess.

“She took a life and ran. Maybe she shot. Maybe she stabbed. No one was sure,” Stapinski writes. “In the end, she got hers. Boy, did she get hers.”

Stapinski’s mother had told her daughter about Vita Gallitelli many times. So did others. The killing was over a card game. Or was it? Vita’s history was composed of fragments, held together not by facts but speculation.

So Stapinski begins her own investigation: “an odyssey that would take me through ancient painted caves, over green volcanic mountains to dusty archives, to dead ends and the edges of cliffs, and to a valley of death . . .”

It’s the most compelling part of “Murder in Matera.” Stapinksi’s description of the near-feudal life in southern Italy in the 19th century is compelling, often moving, tinged with fatalism.

But the slangy, street-wise style of the detective drama frequently and swiftly turns overripe. “I noticed a darkness in Bernalda, as if a cloud were pressing down on its gray cobblestone streets and melancholy population.”

Invariably, Stapinski encounters short, dark-eyed, rough-hewed locals who distrust visitors. She perseveres, visits a cemetery, interviews potential sources, contemplates Pythagoras and Spartacus, learns about crimes, but comes up empty re: Vita’s.

“Maybe I should offer bribes,” she says.

Along the way, Stapinski discusses the hardships and the abuses, hunger, infanticide, the symbolism of poisonous oleander, that were facts of daily life in Bernalda. And Stapinski experiences a growing obsession with Vita’s incomplete picture. Her genealogy journey isn’t exactly like logging onto Ancestry.com.

“Maybe coming here had been a mistake. It was like Bernalda and Vita had taken possession of me.”

Eventually, on a return trip, Stapinski finds records about births, deaths, crimes, and Vita’s saga starts to unfold. So do the wrenching details about the men, good and evil, who contributed to her sorrowful life.

When she sticks with Vita, Bernalda and history, “Murder in Matera” can be fascinating and informative enough to bring you in. But, in effect, it becomes two books: one about an investigation, one about her guesses.

Stapinski ultimately abandons the staccato style and factual content to segue into inklings, surmises, suppositions. She alludes to “murder genes,” concludes that Vita’s “favorite stories” covered outlaws and killers, determines that Vita wished she could be kidnapped to improve her lot.

“There is some spirit that does not want you to tell this story maybe,” she’s advised.

Vita herself has “moxie.” She’s not beautiful but sexy. Vita would “sink into” her first kiss “as if drowning in the Ionian Sea.”

Stapinski admits, “In Vita’s most intimate moments, I have used my own Gallitelli bones and blood to imagine how she would have acted and what she would have thought and said about the incredible events in her life.” That’s no mystery.

There is another Italian expression that applies to “Murder in Matera”: The best word is the one left unsaid.

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