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Open Letter Monthly: "De Giovanni is a masterful plotter and sub-plotter; it’s a joy to ease into his complete command of his craft"

Date: Mar 19 2014

“I’m not interested in politics in the slightest” says Commissario Ricciardi, which would be a problematic enough stance for any Italian policeman since the days of Caesar Augustus but is perhaps particularly awkward in 1930s Naples, because the whole region is about to play host to a flying visit by iron-willed Prime Minister Benito Mussolini – the ultimate clash of politics and police work. Although Ricciardi’s deputy chief of police is naturally fretting about the impending visit in Maurizio De Giovanni’s immensely entertaining and moving fourth novel starring his brooding main character, Ricciardi himself – and his loyal second, Brigadier Maione – are concerned with the death of a little boy, “just one of the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of phantoms in this city. The ones no one sees.”

The wording is apt, of course, because Ricciardi, the son of aristocratic parents, living alone with his ancient tata Rosa, carries a burden unknown to other policemen: he sees the spirits of the recently dead, caught in the stunned, uncomprehending infinite loop of their last moments. Ricciardi doesn’t want these visions, no matter how much they’ve helped the advancement of his career and the spreading of his reputation as almost spookily intuitive in the interpretation of crime scenes. When Ricciardi looks at a crime scene, the dead person is still standing there, utterly blindsided, unable to see Ricciardi and unable to do anything more than repeat over and over again their last living thoughts. And it doesn’t just happen at crime scenes. Even on a rainy trip across town, our hero, described sarcastically by one character as “knight errant and defender of lost souls,” sees things nobody else does:

The commissario kept his eyes trained straight ahead, and he accepted the greetings of the dead in much the same way the boy took the greetings of the living: he saw the pair of adolescents and the despairing debtor, the familiar bridge-jumping suicides on the Ponte della Sanita, and he made a new acquaintance, a decorous, elderly woman dressed in black who had been crushed by the poorly secured load of a horse-drawn cart. The broad cavity in her crushed chest and her mangled left arm, still clutching her handbag, left no doubts as to how she had died and why. As Ricciardi walked past, she said: my grandson hasn’t come around for two months now. I wonder if he came to your funeral, Ricciardi thought …

Ricciardi and Maione’s investigation into the murder of the little boy predictably widens and complicates (De Giovanni is a masterful plotter and sub-plotter; it’s a joy to ease into his complete command of his craft), taking in a fascinating array of characters from the various strata of the Naples underworld. Some of these encounters are extremely fascinating, as in Maione’s steely-eyed confrontation with a suave junk-dealer:

“Capone, you can’t charm your way out of this one: you’re a burglar and a thief. And the words kind, too, because you don’t look like a thief. I have a certain respect for thieves who creep out at night, with their jimmies, dressed in black. We catch them and we throw them in a cell; it’s our job to be policemen, and it’s their job to be thieves. They don’t deny what they’ve done, and once we’ve cornered them, they resign themselves and come along quietly. They’re proper thieves. It’s their profession. Thieves like you, on the other hand, will be the ruin of this city. You pretend to be honest but you’re rotten to the core.”

But it’s Ricciardi and the mystery of the boy that’s at the heart of the novel, and that novel hurtles to a far more tangled and breakneck climax than any previous novel in this series – a climax that leaves our hero poised on the brink of death, fighting for his life in a hospital operating room. De Giovanni torques this scene with merciless precision, taking us through the agonized thoughts of the people in the waiting room – including, most movingly, those of poor old tata Rosa, who’s mentally appealing to the commissario’s dead mother:

Baroness, you’re in the other world, the world of truth, and you can speak with the living and the dead, so try to find wherever he is and tell him to come back to us, that he can’t die now, that it’s not true that he’s alone; there are people who love him, and they couldn’t go on living without him.

Tell him, Baroness. Tell him that he doesn’t dare play this miserable trick on me, a poor old woman. That in all the years of making me lose my temper, I’ve never once raised my hand to him. Tell him for me that if he dare to do this to me, I’ll fix him so he’ll remember it for all eternity, whether it’s in this world or the next.

Tell him, Baroness; tell him to come back to me.

The Day of the Dead is the “autumn” of the adventures of Commissario Ricciardi, but readers can join this series in any of its seasons – and they’re strongly urged to do so: these are murder mysteries raised to a brilliant level.

- Steve Donoghue, Open Letter Monthly

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