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Part 1: Tough Talk in Naples Ian Fleming Style

He plays the Napoleon, one elbow cocked, his fist furled against the chest of his epauletted dinner jacket. Short of manners and miniscule of stature, he barks and struts. His manmade floating territory is the Continental Room. I surmise by comments made in thriller writer Ian Fleming’s slim and bawdily photographed travelogue Thrilling Cities, published in 1963, that the slick and surly Americo is Neapolitan by his nature. I don’t dare ask him where he is from, as he has already put me in my place in a bloody-minded way.

I’d only said in my most charming manner, “Can we please have a table for two?” A simple request, we could have asked for a table by the window where my partner Robert and I could enjoy the slap and steady flow of the Tyrrhenian Sea that streamed by the white hull of the cruise ship.

Robert is my handsome Scotsman. We’d fallen for each other, hard and fast, Robert leaving a long term relationship and moving in with me when we realized we couldn’t be without each other. After nearly a year of living together Robert had taken a leave of absence from his work to accompany me to some port cities penned to posterity, at one time or the other, by various mystery writers.

On the train to catch the cruise ship I’d talked Robert into greasing our way to a dinner table alone with a bribe of twenty Euros slipped into the correct palm. In my defense I must state that this method of attaining a table for two had worked on every other cruise I’d been on.

“Never,” was the maitre ‘D’s response, his leathery neck craned upward as he eyed Robert in a fit of distemper. “Dees ees not possible,” he reiterated needlessly, and, the conversation was closed. One short finger pointed imperiously towards the center of the dining room and we were escorted by Americo’s underling to a table for six. We sat.

In their plush chairs and beneath a brass chandelier a newly married couple in their mid-forties simpered longwindedly. I reflected in a dull moment that they were oddly curt about their respective occupations. “Retired,” the fatter one said, his generous bottom lip agleam in the room’s false glow.

“Post office,” the other chimed, and Cliff and Don went back to their minute descriptions of the flower arrangements and their extensive guest list of physicians and lawyers that had attended their nuptials. After what seemed like hours, but was surely minutes, I blanked out their conversation, nodding politely every ten seconds or so, and thought about how deceased British writer Somerset Maugham’s short stories were modeled around the travelers and expatriates he’d met across a dining table in what was then colonial India and Malaya.
Maugham was reviled for it.

Robert and I, 1200 fellow passengers and 521 crew were enroute from Rome to Naples, the first stop in the final season of an elderly ship whose ports of call would meander through the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Mediterranean, Marmara Sea, back into the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and eventually finishing in the seething Egyptian city of Alexandria.

The following morning we awoke to what would be an endless deluge and to Naples, Italy, a city where best selling author, spy for the SIS during WW II, Jamaicaphile and James Bond creator Ian Fleming set one of his “Thrilling Cities” mood pieces during his stint as travel contributor for the Sunday Times (1959 and 1960). His columns revolved around what Fleming thought were the world’s most exotic and debauched cities and were published three years later in his offbeat travelogue titled Thrilling Cities.

Fleming wrote in the Author’s Note, “ … I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide, well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.”

In Fleming’s Naples Robert and I wander hand in hand, damp as ducks in a gale. We soon tire of the rain and take shelter at a simple establishment, Vera Pizzeria.

Sitting under an umbrella near the roadside we order local wine from a dark eyed young man who winks at me, or, maybe at Robert. (Robert has been told he resembles Fleming’s favorite Bond, Sean Connery). Menu in hand, our waiter preens shamelessly before his glassed reflection, his fingers coaxing up the spikes in his jelled hair. Fleming commented that the “whole psychology of the Italian, particularly the Southern Italian, is based on far figura, ‘to cut a dash’ and this certainly seems so when I look at the Italian men, who sit for hours, sun or cloud, in the cafes and coffee bars.

My feet edge away from an encroaching puddle and I page through my tattered copy of Thrilling Cities to find Fleming’s Naples chapter. The incessant racket and gaseous fumes that waft by unbidden are the product of Italy’s long love affair with the motor scooter. I grimace as a braking, then careening conga line of mostly two-stroke engine Vespas cut close, sounding their high-pitched whine like cicadas in an otherwise dead jungle. I peer down at my mud-dashed skirt, then study a black and white photograph of Chicago gangster Lucky Luciano.

The bespectacled Luciano appears to be in his mid-fifties. Expensively suited, he stands beside a younger and more casually dressed Fleming, though it is Fleming who looks the sophisticate, a thin grey line of smoke trails from his trademark ebony cigarette holder. The odd pair are backed by a motorcade marked ‘Carabnieri.’ Luciano had taken refuge from American law enforcement in the city of Naples, though as Fleming writes, the mafia man detested that city.

I know that 18 months before Raymond Chandler died, Fleming arranged for the hard-boiled mystery writer and creator of the fictional PI Phillip Marlow to visit Naples with the express purpose of meeting Luciano. Fleming hoped that a meeting with the mobster would rekindle Chandler’s desire to write.

The three met for tea at the Hotel Excelsior, to this day a five-star establishment, though now Via Partenope, the waterfront boulevard it fronts, is edged with a runaway growth of weeds and the building sheds patches of its plaster skin on the sidewalk where we walk. With the blue Bay of Naples and the stone fortress, the Castel dll’Ovo as their background, the honey tongued thug convinced both authors Chandler and Fleming he’d been framed as well as maligned: Lucky denied playing any part in mafia drug trafficking in America. He explained that the illegal substances came from Mexico and not his Italian connection. He disputed that fact that he was erroneously held responsible in Italian newspapers for their drug trade. The mobster’s only desire was to play golf and be left alone by the paparazzi. He insisted too, he’d been erroneously blamed by the American Narcotics Bureau for killing a mayor, a kidnapping in Tangier and ‘a bunch of other stuff...’

Later, as Robert and I lounge in the safe haven of the still chi-chi Hotel Excelsior a memory is triggered by Fleming’s written picture of that still thrilling city. Making sure I am not overheard I read a passage aloud to Robert, “Here you are still cheated, jostled, burgled and generally intimidated by the inhabitants as you were at, say, Calais in your early teens. It is as if, as you arrive, the whole town licks its lips and says, ‘Here he comes,’ and you are then set upon with an ingenuity which never slackens until you have got away again with your life and the relics of your purse.”

My own thrill (if you can call it that), a product of a still Flemingesque Naples, began on a mid-September day hard on the heels of the terror and subsequent political alliances of 9/11. My ex-husband Guy and I were guests on a small ship and disembarked to get to know Napoli as much as a stranger can in one afternoon: There were few tourists about. It was Sunday. The fashionable shops that line the high topped open air Galleria Umberto I, the turn of the century arcade, were shut tight. After a stroll around the Piazza Plebiscito (clearly modeled after Bernini’s Piazza St. Peter in Rome) we stopped for a macchiato at the Café Gambrinus that sits under the exquisite shadow of the Teatro San Carlo, Italy’ largest opera house. Taking our chairs on the patio we sipped from tiny porcelain cups and appreciated our impressive architectural surroundings.

The time whiled as we watched the fashionable Italian’s warm interplay. Men and women, men and men, and women too, busked their greetings, lips grazing cheeks, first the right then the left. As they spoke their gesturing hands punctuated rapid fire each sentence.

“Ingleeze?” I heard a swarthy skinned man ask. He’d come out of nowhere, hovering, a dark cloud over us, a newspaper clutched in his hand.

Guy answered simply, “yes.”

And then it began: the Italian backed up against the café wall, a minute distance from our table. Holding his Italian newspaper up, he stabbed at it with one nicotine stained finger and spat the word “Morderer.” A Muslim supporter. His paper Il Mattino, headlined that the United Kingdom was aligning with the U.S. in the War against Terrorism and sending troops for the Afghanistan invasion. As in Fleming’s day Southern Italy has always been a hotbed of extreme politics.

Our self appointed judge of the West stepped up his invectives, “Morderer, Morderer,” he railed in a high-pitched voice.

The patrons in the busy café stared. Before much, other than disbelief, could register in my brain and fast as a freight train Guy strode towards the local, took him by the throat and pinned him to the wall.
Guy said something, I couldn’t make out his words, then loosed his grasp.

Returning to my side, Guy dug in his pocket, threw some lire on the table, and grabbed me by the hand, saying “walk don’t run.”

On the piazza I turned to look behind me. I saw the Neapolitan. He tailed us, each time we stopped he crouched low, hurling his damnation toward us, “Morderer, murderer,” he’d call with an ugly cast to his mouth and hate in his eyes.

We walked faster.
He followed suit, stopping in shadows when we’d turn to look. Taking refuge in a café I watched his waiting game. He crouched on his haunches in front of the café window. Mouthing that hateful word, his finger pierced the newspaper headlines. I was afraid. What if he had a knife?

“Call the police,” I said to the male proprietor of the café, explaining our plight as well as I could. “No telephono,” he assured me, looking nonplussed and I knew he either sympathized, or couldn’t be bothered getting involved.

In the street Guy told me I shouldn’t have asked to call the police. “What if I’m arrested for throttling the creep,” he said. “There were witnesses.”

With his words a cab came by and we hurled ourselves in. As Guy asked the cabbie to take us to the port, I remembered again a snippet of Fleming’s take on an outwardly innocent Naples, so holy, so civilized with its magnificent churches and awe inspiring opera house. ‘Here he comes,’ Fleming wrote, ‘and you are then set upon with an ingenuity which never slackens until you have got away again with your life…”

Before You Go: To travel vicariously with Victoria Brooks to other thrilling locales order a copy of the book “Famous Faces, Famous Places and Famous Food.”

DON”T MISS THE NEXT ISSUE of Greatest Escapes where the thrills continue when Victoria sails to the exotic metropolis of Istanbul, setting for detective and thrillers aplenty. Sign up at www.greatestescapes.com