May 14, 2001 12:00 PM

Frank Viviano was fresh from the front lines in Bosnia in 1992 when he visited his 95-year-old grandfather in Detroit for the last time. The old man, who would die six months later, was worried about his war-correspondent grandson’s rootlessness and taste for danger. He told Frank he was just like “the Monk,” a shadowy figure from the family’s Sicilian past. “I asked him what happened to the Monk,” says Viviano, 53. “He told me he was murdered—’The boss told his men to kill him.’ I asked him who this boss was, and he told me a name I’d never heard before: Domenico Valenti.”

The bare-bones story—motive, gunman’s identity, even year of death unknown—haunted Viviano. So in 1995 he traveled to Terrasini, Sicily, on a quest to solve the murder of his great-great-grandfather, a bandit and sometime revolutionary whose real name, like Frank’s, was Francesco Viviano. The book that followed, Blood Washes Blood: A True Story of Love, Murder, and Redemption Under the Sicilian Sun, is part detective story and part history of the early Mafia. It is also the memoir of a laptop-slinging journalist who discovers a surprising affinity with an illiterate 19th-century highwayman.

The Monk’s nickname came from the hooded robe he wore as a disguise. Scouring yellowed documents in village archives, Viviano learned that his ancestor flourished in the mid-1800s, when Sicily was awash in Robin Hood figures. “There are folktales about the bandits’ exploits,” says Viviano. “They didn’t rob just to fill their own pockets. They tended to distribute their gains among the poor.” The man who ordered the Monk’s killing was a leader of a brutal new criminal order that came to be known as the Mafia. After crushing the bandits, says Viviano, the Mafiosi stole their rituals and “claimed them as spiritual ancestors. It was a means of justifying their existence, sustaining the illusion that they were men of honor.”

Viviano’s own existence began in Detroit in 1947. But it might as well have been Sicily. His four grandparents were from Terrasini, and seven of their nine children married the offspring of other immigrants from the same village. Viviano’s father, Tommy, now 82, drove a delivery truck, and his mother, Prudy, 78, was a sales rep for a car-parts company; both were born in America, but Frank and his younger brother Sam, now 48 and the art director of Mad magazine, grew up speaking a Sicilian dialect at home.

Educated in Catholic schools, Frank fell in with local toughs in seventh grade. “I was in and out of juvenile court,” he says. “I stole cars, robbed a gas station.” He credits his mother—and a job as an apprentice butcher—with straightening him out. Still, he remained restless. After graduating from high school in 1965, Viviano went on to Wayne State University, then transferred to the University of Michigan. He married childhood sweetheart Mary Coffman in 1969 but left her behind the next year when he moved to France to duck the draft. There he wrote a few magazine articles, laying the ground-work for his future livelihood. “The irony,” he says, “is that I left the U.S. to avoid going to Vietnam and ended up becoming a war correspondent.”

Back home in 1973 and reunited with Mary, Viviano returned to the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in American studies in ’76. Then the couple moved to San Francisco, where Viviano’s career as a freelance journalist began to take off. “My dream was always to write,” he says, “but I thought it was something that fancy people did.” In 1979, the year his marriage ended, he landed a gig in Asia with the Pacific News Service. Since then, Viviano—who switched to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1988—has covered conflicts from the Tiananmen Square uprising in China to Mafia bloodbaths in Italy. (Off duty, he retreats to his small apartment in Paris or his rambling house in Tuscany.) “He’s one of the most courageous reporters I’ve ever known,” says Chronicle editor Ken Conner. “I don’t know how Frank does it.”

The answer: not as easily as it may appear. Viviano was already bordering on burnout in ’92 when he was captured by Serb militiamen in Bosnia and spent hours with a gun aimed at his head. The brush with death seemed to highlight the emptiness of his life. Afterward, he recalls, “I lost my bearings.” He grew reckless on the job and despairing off it.

It was then that his grandfather summoned him to Detroit. Viviano doesn’t know whether the old man, who was also named for the Monk, meant to launch him on an investigation into his ancestor’s killing. But the search—conducted between assignments in distant war zones—gave him more than the solution to a long-ago crime. Exploring his kinship with the Monk, Viviano says, he uncovered the roots of his own penchant for solitude and peril, his “gut-level mistrust of authority.” And he avenged the bandit Francesco without firing a shot. “If those who bore the name of the murdered man had a debt to pay, it has been paid,” Viviano declares. “Not in blood, but in truth.”

William Plummer

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