Maurizio de Giovanni’s new novel, The Bottom of Your Heart: Inferno for Commissario Ricciardi, opens with a man falling to his death gracefully, as though in slow motion, his two-second plunge lasting five pages. It is a terrifying yet elegiac overture. “The professor is falling. And as he does, his thoughts shatter into a thousand tiny shards . . . like so many fragments of a broken mirror, reflecting what little they can catch in the fall, yearning for the days when they could assemble a single, harmonious picture.” As the professor descends, he reveals that he was pushed from his office window into the summer night in Naples after a ” . . . hasty, desperate bare-fisted brawl which caught him by such surprise that he didn’t even have a chance to shout for help.” A crime, then, and perhaps a political one. This is, after all, Italy in 1932, with Mussolini’s Fascist Party in power and murder all around.
Contemplating the shattered victim, however, Commissario Ricciardi, the investigating officer, senses — or rather hears — only words of love. “The corpse was repeating gently, in a voice little more than a whisper: Sisinella and love, love and Sisinella . . . The absurd last thought at the end of his fall and the beginning of his death.” Readers of the previous Ricciardi novels (this is the seventh) will know that he is cursed with the ability to hear the last thoughts of those who die violently and therefore destined to be forever “wounded by the pain of others.” Thankfully, this congenital affliction makes Ricciardi a convincingly troubled detective rather than a noir cliché. And here, as in the preceding novels, de Giovanni wisely keeps mysticism in check as he deepens the mystery at the novel’s core.
A postcard from 1930s Naples.
A postcard from 1930s Naples.
“It was the commissario’s theory that behind every murder was either hunger or love,” and in a scene that recurs throughout the novel, de Giovanni personifies both appetites in the characters of an impoverished boy and girl who rendezvous to watch emigrants setting sail for America. “The ship. A black beast, colossal, with its immense belly that would gobble them all up . . . leaving nothing behind it but the usual, terrible emptiness” transfixes the children. “What language are they going to speak in America?” the girl worries. “What are they going to eat?”
The boy grows up to become “Peppino the Wolf, the boss of the quarter at just twenty-five . . . ” Or does he? The novel’s alternating narratives — of Peppino, of a tormented goldsmith, of a dying physician, of the professor’s widow — are slyly misleading. Only toward the final act, which revolves around a religious festival, is the identity not only of the murderer but also of the true victim (of lifelong cruelty if not of death) quietly revealed. “Right from the first questions, from the first interviews; it was all there,” Ricciardi admits, “it was all clear and understandable from the very beginning.” The reader, too, is prevented from seeing until just the right moment. Then this brooding novel ends as it should, in the dark with Ricciardi, silent and unobserved, witnessing his own chance for happiness disappearing before his eyes.