For instance, if a vat of acid is nearby, find somewhere else to be — fast. Acid baths are a favored technique to make sure that bodies are not found. Luring to bed the wife of a mafioso who’s in the slammer can be extremely bad for one’s health. Homosexuality, while hardly unknown in gangland circles, is not a wise career move should one be caught in flagrante. Then again, with mobsters you must remember this: A kiss is not just a kiss. “In Sicily, a kiss on the lips is a signal that the recipient is going to be killed,” Nadeu writes. “A kiss on the cheek in Naples is a sign of earned respect, and in Puglia, a kiss of the ring is a sign of submission in line with cardinals and bishops kissing the ring of a pope.”
That qualifies as news you can use. So does an understanding that, for all the male dominance in the Italian mob galaxy, women are emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Among other things, the author says, they tend to be better educated than the men, and more worldly. That’s no small consideration at a time when murder does not seem as valued a business tactic as it once was. One Calabrian judge told Nadeau that a “new generation of highly educated daughters” is “taking a more active role in drug trafficking, as accountants and sometimes even dealers. Having been educated abroad, they are often more tech savvy and culturally aware, which means they can help the criminal groups strategize on a more global level.”
Even so, theirs is a world filled with troglodytes. In the 1950s, Pupetta was a standout, which is no doubt why the narrative returns to her again and again. Interviewed by Nadeau several times along the coast south of Naples, she is the godmother of the book’s title, the cover showing her on her wedding day, surrounded by men with bullet holes superimposed on their foreheads. Such is the life.
Over time, she was accused of other murders, and spent a few more years in prison. When she died, it was front-page news in Italy. By then, her life had been chronicled in several movies, one of them being a 1982 made-for-television production called “Il Caso Pupetta Maresca,” or “The Pupetta Maresca Case.” She was played by Alessandra Mussolini, a granddaughter of the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Pupetta went to court to block that film from being broadcast. She successfully argued, Nadeau says, that being portrayed by a Mussolini was “an affront to her honor.”
Clyde Haberman, the former “NYC” columnist for The Times, is a contributing writer for the paper.
THE GODMOTHER: Murder, Vengeance, and the Bloody Struggle of Mafia Women | By Barbie Latza Nadeau | 416 pp. | Pegasus Books | $29.95