Christmas was looming over everyone, midway between a promise and a threat.
I picked By My Hand up a bit randomly the other day: I was browsing my shelves for books I haven’t read yet (I have a reasonable number of these, though not nearly as many as some people!) and I remembered how much I’d liked the first two Commissario Ricciardi mysteries–and also de Giovanni’s ‘Bastards of Pizzofalcone’ books. With the holiday season upon us but little chance that it will be a particularly festive time this year, it seemed like the right moment for “The Christmas of Commisario Ricciardi,” and it was.
I won’t go into detail about the plot. While it’s a neat enough murder mystery, the appeal of the novel lies in its characters: Ricciardi himself, and this time also his colleague Raffaele Maione, still awash in grief and anger about the murder of his son. Ricciardi is a unique variation on the familiar figure of the gloomy detective. As I said in my post about the first in the series, I Will Have Vengeance, “the strange and somewhat risky gimmick of the series is that he sees dead people — or, rather, dying people.” It is indeed a risky premise, but it works, because we feel on every page the burden of sorrow that his grim visions place on Ricciardi. In this novel, as he moves through the crowds of people bound on holiday errands and outings, he reflects,
My crowd is made up of the living and the dead, indifference and sorrow, cries and silences. I’m the sole citizen of a city made up of people who are dead but think they are alive, or of people who breathe but think that they are dead.
The other strength of the series is its atmosphere, both local and historical. In this particular instance, politics are pervasive but also peripheral: the victims are well-placed parts of the Fascist regime, but while that enables the abuses of power that create possible motives for their killing, our detectives are not drawn into any confrontation with Mussolini’s minions and the crime itself turns out to be deeply personal. What dominates is Naples: the city’s sights and sounds and traditions, particularly of elaborate carved nativity scenes. There are pages, too, devoted to the enticing food and drink of a Neapolitan Christmas:
The shop windows of the confectioners and pastry shops were especially spectacular, and at the center, enjoying pride of place, was a Christ Child made of spun sugar. Surrounding him was an overabundance of cookies and cakes, small hillsides of struffoli, balls of fried dough dripping with honey and colorful candy pellets, cassata, along with the traditional pastries and confectionaries that no Christmas in Naples could do without, from the brightly colored almond pastries arranged on specially cut biscuits to the hard almond-dough taralli also known as roccoco; from the rhomboid-shaped Neapolitan Christmas cookies known as mustacciuoli covered with a chocolate glaze to the spicy, aromatic quaresimali …
Not all the treats are quite so appetizing: there’s also a detailed description of the evasive maneuvers and ultimate bloody death of a saltwater eel, and in the end, that grisly spectacle sums up the mood of the novel as a whole better than the cheerful cookies. By My Hand is a pretty depressing book: its glimmers of light are low and muted, like wintry sunshine, and give us just the faintest hope that for those in the novel who are suffering, things will get a bit better someday. I’ll certainly read the other Commissario Ricciardi novels waiting on my shelf eventually, but I’m glad I’ve got Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer lined up to read next: it looks a lot more cheerful.