MAFIA WOMEN by Clare Longrigg, Chatto pounds 16.99
Italians have always venerated mothers at the expense of women. But the accepted image of the mafia woman - kitchen-bound, brow-beaten, laden with children and labouring over a steaming vat of pasta sauce - is changing.

Journalist Clare Longrigg first met mafia women through members of the Sicilian Association of Women against the Mafia. At first, like many other commentators, she was struck by the women's courage in breaking the silence imposed on them by the mafia's insistence on omert (the word derives from the Sicilian for man - omu, and expresses the supposedly masculine virtue of impenetrable secrecy). Where Longrigg's study comes into its own is in her ability to blend sociological analysis with a thrilling story. Writers such as Renate Siebert and Salvatore Lupo have paved the way with their ground-breaking work on the structures inherent to the mafia, but Longrigg brings to life the drama and complexity of its distorted moral world. Together with transcripts of trials and historical facts she has persuaded some of the major female mafia players to betray their code of honour.

Her book testifies that, now there are so many capi (bosses) under lock and key, their wives and sisters are emerging to head the depleted families. She sees these women as exploiting their "privileged" position as upholders of family values to mask behaviour that is as ruthless and single-minded as their menfolk's.

But she also gives voice to the women who have so far failed to make the transition from obscurity to the limelight of popular culture. Perhaps they prefer it that way. The female loan-sharks who have been terrorising Neapolitan shopkeepers for centuries owe part of their success to their

invisibility to the authorities. And every mafioso knows that middle- aged housewives make the best drug smugglers. (Longrigg cites the famous case of 74-year-old "Granny Heroin" who was finally shopped to the police by her son.)

Whereas the Italian judiciary perceives mafia women as submissive (one newspaper headline ran: "A mafiosa? No, just a wife") others blame women for encouraging a culture of violence with their enthusiasm for the vendetta. Photographers such as Benetton's Oliviero Toscani delight in the image of a veiled woman, wailing over a bleeding corpse, calling on her son to take up the cudgels. Longrigg's analysis is more subtle. Blood feuds are a traditional form of justice in southern Italy and one which is locally considered to mete out more effective punishment than il governo ladro (thieving government). In Calabrian folklore, sangue chiama sangue - blood cries out for blood. And Longrigg describes the vendetta as more of a strategic war in which women direct the military strategy. Control of territory is paramount. No boss can afford to lose ground, and failure to exact revenge is tantamount to suicide. Any up-and-coming mafioso can make his mark with a swift act of vengeance. "In such cases, the mother who incites the son to kill is more than the avenging angel, she is a kingmaker."

One woman who waged her own vendetta is Assunta "Pupetta" (Little Doll) Maresca, the First Lady of the Camorra, the secret organisation that rules Naples. Longrigg found that Maresca was eager to talk: "We had been married for 80 days when they shot my husband. And 80 days later I shot the man who killed him. I was only 18. And I was pregnant." She was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment for avenging her husband's death. She had inherited his authority and was made the boss of her prison, but she had also denied her unborn son the chance to prove himself a man. On her release, she took up with a leading camorrista who is currently suspected of assassinating her unruly, drug-addled son. A pragmatic woman, she realised that seeking vengeance for him would mean losing her position, so she continued to live with the man she perceived as her enemy. It is only now that he has collaborated with the state that she is prepared to express her contempt for him.

Longrigg met many "pragmatic" women, anxious to hold on to their precarious status in a society that does not hold many options for them. When a woman's husband becomes a pentito, many feel betrayed - not only have they lost their social standing but they are placed in mortal danger. Out of 451 informers in the past six years, only 30 have been women.

Mafia Women celebrates the most famous of these - Rita Atria, who was 11 when her father, a mafia boss, was murdered, and 16 when her brother was shot dead in 1991. At that point, she decided to turn to the authorities, and in particular Paolo Borsellino, the magistrate in charge of the pentitismo programme. Ostracised by her mother and unsafe in Sicily, she was taken, under Borsellino's care, to a safe house in Rome. Together with her sister- in-law, she provided solutions to 20 years of unsolved murders in her hometown, including that of the local mayor.

On 19 July 1992, Paolo Borsellino was assassinated by a huge car bomb. A week later, alone and frightened in Rome, Rita Atria composed a suicide note: "Now there's no one to protect me. I can't go on." After Rita's funeral, her mother defaced her martyred daughter's tomb and smashed her picture with a hammer.

Through confessing her father's crimes Rita had been given absolution by the state, but in breaking the bonds of omert she was infame - treacherous and unworthy of respect. For many mafia women, society does not dictate the rules: the family is the bedrock of civil law. Italians are notoriously squeamish about dismantling the mother-child relationship, but Longrigg quotes a Calabrian magistrate keen to disrupt the legacy of crime passed from parent to child: "Sterilise them," he says.

Although much of Longrigg's material isn't new, she manipulates it to convey with a chilling immediacy the conflicting bonds that tie some women to their daunting heritage while others attempt to defy it. And if she gives more space to the stories of the women who choose crime, it is because she has the journalist's appreciation of intrigue and the capacity to do it justice.