Reviewer Janet Walker: Janet is the author of Colour To Die For, first of the Fee Weston Mystery Series. Janet lives in Australia and when she is not writing about P.I. Fee Weston's fight for truth, justice and a livable cash flow, she writes articles for magazines and fund raises for Australia's wildlife carers - heroes of the bush. For more about Janet and Fee visit Janet's WEBSITE
Author: Michael Schmicker
Publisher: Palladino Books
Things that go bump in the night or inanimate objects which suddenly leap into life have never really piqued my interest until I read Michael Schmicker’s new book, The Witch of Napoli. Suspenseful and a huge amount of fun the central character is Alessandra Poverelli, a medium whose skill at contacting the spirit world has come to the attention of believers in psychic phenomena and sceptics who aim to prove Alessandra is just like all mediums – a fake.
Of historical interest The Witch of Napoli is set in Naples in 1899 amidst a lively, mostly poverty-stricken Neapolitan society eager for the next sensational event to be reported in lurid detail by the tabloids of the day.
The story is narrated by Tomasso Labelli, a young photographer, who attends a Spiritualist séance hoping to improve his standing with his newspaper editor by taking photos which pander to the public’s latest fad: communicating with the dead.
He is not disappointed. The séance is conducted by the unconventionally beautiful medium, Alessandra Poverelli. Alessandra has garnered a rep amongst wealthy recently bereaved Neapolitans as a medium who can deliver and deliver Alessandra does – when the table she is sitting at levitates Tomasso clicks into action and takes a shot which changes both their lives forever.
Alessandra and her ability to invoke the spirit world captured in black and white, Tomasso’s photograph is front page news and so is Alessandra.
Camillo Lombardi, a wealthy Jewish psychiatrist, arrives in Naples to investigate. Camillo convenes a séance to see whether Alessandra has the gift of second sight or whether her gift lies somewhere between trickery and illusion.
Convinced Alessandra is the real deal when the ghost of his dead mother makes an appearance, Camillo puts a proposal to Alessandra: he will finance a tour of the Continent, to prove to scientists and sceptics alike that her psychic powers are genuine thereby establishing a new branch of scientific research.
Alessandra’s mother died when she was six years old, her father, murdered not long after, she escaped village life to live a precarious existence on the streets of Naples. This tragic beginning to Alessandra’s life is compounded by her marriage to the local Mafia boss, Pigotti, a thug who beats her and steals the money she earns from séances.
Camillo offers Alessandra a fee to accompany him on the tour – the payment, enough to start a new life in Rome away from the brutal treatment of Pigotti, Alessandra accepts provided Tomasso, who has become a good friend, goes with them to document and photograph their progress.
Camillo agrees and the trio set off. Newspapers across Europe herald her seemingly amazing powers – tested by scientists Alessandra succeeds where others have failed, her gift for supernatural communication unable to be faulted.
Writer Michael Schmicker’s description of late nineteenth century to early twentieth century European life is skilfully and convincingly written, the séances intriguing and exciting. What is unusual is the author's choice of mostly modern day language in dialogue between the central characters. Difficult to do when the text setting is historical it didn’t grate with the time period and ensured the plot was fast paced and easy to understand – good writing.
After a few setbacks, romance begins to blossom between Camillo and Alessandra and it seems as if Lady Luck has finally looked her way.
A cloud though does appear on the horizon in the form of Nigel Huxley, a detective for England's Society for the Investigation of Mediums. Nigel’s a nasty piece of work who travels the world with the prime objective of debunking psychic phenomena et al.
Despite Camillo’s objections, Alessandra accepts Nigel’s challenge to travel to England to have her supernatural powers tested. The tarot cards predict a debacle and they are right – Alessandra, desperate to win the challenge does something really silly and her dream of a happy life is shattered.
The Vatican, in order to discredit Alessandra’s gift begin to investigate her early life – with Pigotti hot on her trail, storm clouds threaten; will Alessandra, a woman of little education but great courage triumph?
Alessandra Poverelli’s character based on the true-life story of celebrated Italian medium Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), The Witch of Napoli’s conclusion is like the rest of the story – a great read.