(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Lia Matera’s novels tend toward the thriller format, they are based, as well, on traditional cozy mysteries. Willa Jansson, for example, would like to focus on her career and private life but keeps getting drawn into cases with political consequences. Laura Di Palma has similar career concerns—although she is, in some respects, more willing than Willa to pursue crimes that are outside the purview of her day job. In both series, however, Matera eschews the neat endings of traditional mysteries—the return to a cozy feeling that all is right with the world after the criminals have been apprehended. The novels begin in a state of anxiety that can be only temporarily alleviated by the actions of the series hero and her enablers.

Matera favors the first-person narrative. Both Willa Jansson and Laura Di Palma narrate the novels as though they were speaking to a friend in confidence. Although both characters are earnest investigators, they exhibit a wry sense of humor and even a jokey manner that enhances the informal tone of the novels, although the Di Palma series is less lighthearted. Both series, however, include serious explorations of ethical and moral issues. Matera is especially interested in the way her characters can be set up and themselves become victims. Willa’s and Laura’s legal training not only guides them in sorting out the innocent and the guilty but also in establishing how they approach the nexus between crime and politics.

Matera’s novels have an implicitly feminist focus insofar as they show their female protagonists in conflict with male-dominated law firms and the criminal justice system. Whatever flaws that system may contain, however, and no matter how leftist Matera’s novels may seem, she demonstrates in Havana Twist (1998) just how worse off a society can be without an independent judiciary and a legal justice system in which defendants have rights that are balanced against the impersonal forces of the corporation and government.