On a miserable morning in 1930, a small, undernourished child is found dead at the foot of the Tondo di Capodimonte steps in Naples, his only companion a mongrel dog. Aristocratic detective Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi di Malomonte is called out to investigate. Mussolini, Il Duce himself, is due to make an official visit to the city and Ricciardi’s superiors are keen to show that Naples is the perfect – and crime-free – Fascist city. So, when the victim, nicknamed “Tette” on account of his stutter, turns out to be an orphan – one of Naples’s legion of street kids, in the dubious care of an influential local priest – and when the autopsy shows no sign of violence, Ricciardi comes under intense pressure from both his boss and the church hierarchy to drop the investigation.
But Ricciardi remains unpersuaded and somewhat perplexed about the circumstances of young Tette’s death and insists on continuing, even after being required to take leave, relying on his loyal assistant, Brigadier Maione. Ricciardi is, you see, the reluctant beneficiary of a strange gift. He is blessed – or, perhaps, cursed – with the ability to see the psychic traces of recent deaths and to hear the last thoughts of the victim. And the problem here is that he sees nothing of Tette’s death at the steps, which means that Tette must have been moved there after his death. Why? And by whom?
Ricciardi is a brooding individual, living alone with his childhood nurse, Rosa. Deeply committed to the idea of justice, he is an obsessively private loner who shares his thoughts and feelings with no one – not even, Brigadier Maione, his closest associate. The Day of the Dead is the fourth in Maurizio de Giovanni’s series featuring Commissario Ricciardi and is published by the World Noir imprint of Europa Editions, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite crime fiction imprints. Each of the installments comprises a season for the Commissario – this is his autumn and much of de Giovanni’s imagery is reflective of this. The death of a child is never a light subject and de Giovanni matches the weather and atmosphere of Naples to the melancholic feel of the story. The Naples of The Day of the Dead is not the sun-kissed southern Italy of pizza, plum tomatoes and summer holidays. It rains in this Naples. And rains. And rains. De Giovanni’s powers of description and atmosphere generation are extraordinary; there’s an almost palpable feeling of sadness and dread running through the book.
Although there is a crime at the heart of the plot and although there are elements of historical police procedural (albeit offset by the supernatural flavour note of Ricciardi’s gift), The Day of the Dead is so much more than a straightforward crime novel. As Ricciardi moves from the salons of Napoletan society to the corrupt environment of the church orphanage where Tette lived and through the streets of working class Naples, de Giovanni writes a novel of the city, a panoramic record of 1930s Naples. Dare I say it, there are echoes of Dickens here, in the close identification of author with city, in the focus on the appalling inequalities of power and wealth and in the numerous plots and sub-plots.
In fact, not only is it as much a novel of place as a crime novel, but it’s almost more a novel that explores love in all its many and varied forms. There’s the pained love of form and ritual that develops between Ricciardi and his neighbour. There’s the unrequited love of Livia Vezzi, a renowned opera singer, for Ricciardi, the comfortable masculine love that exists between Ricciardi and Maione and the love of Tette and his dog that comes from loneliness and oppression. Rosa has a feudal, quasi-maternal love for Ricciardi and, at the very centre of the story, a shockingly warped and broken concept of love.
Don’t get me wrong; although The Day of the Dead is an excellent work of fiction, de Giovanni never loses sight of the plot and the reveal is, without ever being too graphic, is one of the most shocking climaxes to a crime novel I’ve read in a very long time and one to which the hoary cliché, “it took my breath away”, actually did truly apply. And, if that weren’t enough, de Giovanni leaves us with a cliff-hanger as Ricciardi is rushed to hospital, dangerously ill, and all of the people who love him gather to will him to recover.
The Day of the Dead left me with a strong urge to read the first three books in the series as well as a keen sense of anticipation for the next in the series – although de Giovanni has completed all four seasons of Ricciardi, I understand a fifth installment is to appear and, frankly, if one didn’t, I would be outraged, given the cliffhanger ending.
This is high quality stuff from an author of real talent who demonstrates a true mastery of his art and you won’t be surprised that I strongly suggest you read it.