Author – Maurizio de Giovanni (translated by Anne Milano Appel)
Published – Feb 2012
Genre – Crime fiction
This is the first English translation of a novel by Maurizio de Giovanni, an award-winning Italian crime fiction author.
The setting is Naples, 1937, a fascist Italy under Mussolini (Il Duce) and the evocative descriptions by de Giovanni show a country being divided by politics into the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Although the book isn’t overly heavy on the period detail there is enough to demonstrate the hardships being felt by many. It’s the small details which give the sense of the era, for example a detective who wears a hairnet to bed.
Our investigator is Commissario Ricciardi, who follows in the tradition of much crime fiction by being “troubled”, however his problem is quite unusual. To (mis) quote M. Night Shyamalan “he sees dead people”. As a boy he discovered that he sometimes sees the dead. Just those who have died violently, and what he sees captures their last expression and their final words. This “ability” makes Ricciardi a solemn and determined man with few friends, but also means that he has an uncanny knack of solving murders. He cuts a solitary figure, both at home and at work, although he does show a softer side in his unspoken admiration of a neighbour.
The case he is called to investigate is the brutal murder of one of the world’s greatest tenors, Maestro Vezzi, who has been found dead in his dressing room moments before he was due to perform. Unfortunately for Ricciardi, Vezzi is a favourite of Il Duce, and there is pressure from the Vice Questura to find a quick resolution.
Ricciardi and his assistant, Brigadier Maione, have to untangle the puzzle of how Vezzi was murdered and who could have entered his dressing room to perpetrate the crime in the middle of a performance. In the course of the investigation they discover that Vezzi was almost universally disliked, but they still struggle to find anyone who would have killed him. In order to better understand the events Ricciardi has to lean more about the operas being performed, and as a non-opera person I found this aspect interesting.
The book is short compared to many published at the moment – which makes a pleasant change, and the pace feels unhurried, but never loses the reader’s interest. This is classic crime fiction with a simple puzzle at its heart, a sympathetic lead character, and something of a moral dilemma.
To me this feels similar to the series by Andrea Camilleri, although there’s a lot less eating involved. The subject is perhaps darker than Camilleri’s writing, but the perios Italian setting, the determination of the lead character for justice and the simplicity of the well-told murder-mystery is reminiscent of his style.
I hope that the rest of the series featuring Ricciardi is translated, as I very much look forward to reading more.
Score – 4/5