Briefly: Maurizio de Giovanni, By My Hand


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.

Berlin Noir: Philip Kerr, March Violets

violetsI didn’t much like March Violets–it just didn’t work for me. I should perhaps have anticipated this: in general, noir fiction isn’t really my thing. But I didn’t expect Kerr to go all in on his imitation of Raymond Chandler. Stylistically at least, I think I would have liked it better if he’d gone all in as the next Dashiell Hammett. I have to grit my teeth to get through the metaphorical excesses of The Big Sleep, and Kerr’s, while less florid, also seemed less poetic and a lot more forced. I also think there’s no excuse for perpetuating the sexism of classic hard-boiled detective novels in a contemporary pastiche. In fact, while I find Philip Marlowe’s misogyny disturbing, I give Chandler credit for showing the price Marlowe pays for it, in his embittered isolation, while Bernie Gunther’s sexism (“Her breasts were like the rear ends of a pair of dray horses at the end of a long hard day”) serves only to show off Kerr’s own hard-boiled credentials. (“There’s only one thing that unnerves me more than the company of an ugly woman in the evening, and that’s the company of the same ugly woman the following morning.”)

There were certainly things about March Violets that I thought were well done. The historical setting is one: Kerr really effectively conjures up the atmosphere of 1936 Berlin–the violence and brutality, the pomp and posturing and power-brokering, the shady corners and the moral gray areas. The plot was pretty convoluted, but that’s authentically Chandleresque, for better and for worse. I was amused by the metafictional interlude with the SS officer who is a crime fiction aficionado. “Part of the image, eh?” he says to Bernie when he takes a refill of schnaps:

“And what image would that be?”

“Why, the private detective of course. The shoddy little man in the barely furnished office, who drinks like a suicide who’s lost his nerve, and who comes to the assistance of the beautiful but mysterious woman in black.”

violets2When Bernie gets smart with him, the officer observes that “the ability to talk as toughly as your fictional counterpart is one thing … Being it is quite another.” I can’t imagine any reader of March Violets needing any such overt signals of Kerr’s knowingness about genre conventions, as there’s nothing subtle about his attempt to recreate the feeling and many of the themes of his hard-boiled predecessors, but it was still a nice light moment in an otherwise dour novel.

Something that really didn’t work for me was the episode in which Bernie goes “undercover” at Dachau. One problem, I thought, was that Kerr handled it badly: it seemed obvious that he took the responsibility of writing about Dachau seriously and the result was a tonal shift and some sudden onset “info-dumping” as Bernie turned from cynical private eye to eloquent witness (“Work sufficient to destroy the human spirit was the aim of Dachau, with death the unlooked-for by-product”). The whole sequence (which was also wildly implausible) felt like a device, a gimmick to give Kerr the opportunity to include Dachau in his scene setting–and that, in turn, felt tasteless to me.

Kerr’s concept–to revisit Chandler’s “mean streets” in the context of fascism and the fear and instability it brings, when everyone might be an informer and nobody’s life (or death) is really worth inquiring into very closely–is a really good one, and Bernie’s attempt to negotiate this world while being (in Chandler’s terms) “neither tarnished nor afraid” sets up what I can imagine become a lot of morally interesting scenarios as the series goes on. I didn’t enjoy reading March Violets, though: its tone just didn’t suit. I finished it thinking that rather than reading any further in this series, I’d rather read more of Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi series. They too take us down the mean streets of fascism, but they have a gravity to them–an elegance, almost, and a sadness–that I find more appealing than Kerr’s noir nastiness.

“Another Corruption of Love”: Maurizio de Giovanni, Everyone In Their Place


Now, in the light of these new events, the commissario came back to this idea with some concern: both because he’d seen with lucid clarity who had killed the Duchess of Camparino and because he was no doubt infected with the same disease that had triggered the murder: jealousy. Let’s call a spade a spade, he thought, as he brushed past a beggar’s extended hand. I’ve encountered a new perversion, yet another corruption of love that leads to death and to murder. And now that I’ve encountered it myself, I can clearly recognize it.

Everyone In Their Place is nearly twice as long as I Will Have Vengeance, the first book in Maurizio de Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi series. I don’t think it would be quite fair to say it’s also nearly twice as good, because I thought I Will Have Vengeance was already very good. The extra length, though, allows de Giovanni to develop more layers, in both his story and his characters, and the result is intensely satisfying both as a mystery and as a novel. Something I particularly admired, in fact, is how well the murder plot is interwoven with the novel’s other elements, particularly Ricciardi’s own struggles to find his place in the world.

As I explained in my previous post, Ricciardi has “visions”: he sees people in the moment of their death, which is valuable for his work as a detective but, because he sees these suffering figments everywhere he goes, takes an enormous psychic toll on him. More than the first book, Everyone In Their Place (which is the third one) emphasizes the social consequences of the commissario’s curse. He’s a profoundly lonely man, largely by choice: he is wary of forming bonds because everywhere he looks he sees the worst results of strong feelings: “in the churning maelstrom of love, passion, wealth, and poverty, envy and jealousy sprang up like weeds — and with them, murder.” He also can’t imagine inviting anyone he loves to share the reality of his world as he experiences it. As far as the beautiful, assertive Livia goes, this caution seems reasonable: though her pursuit of him makes him the envy of many onlookers, she seems ill-suited either to join him in brooding or to bring him back to trust and hope. But one of the sweetest strains in the novel is the very (very!) slow unfolding of Ricciardi’s relationship with Enrica, the girl who lives across from his apartment with whom he has been carrying on an extended — well, you can hardly call it a flirtation, when all it consists of to this point is mutual watching, but it’s something like that. Thoughtful, independent, self-contained, Enrica seems a more promising candidate to provide the morose detective with company and maybe even a little comfort, if only her parents weren’t determined to match her with the loutish Sebastiano — and if only she hadn’t seen Ricciardi with Livia, and he hadn’t seen her with Sebastiano…

There’s a comedy-of-errors quality to these personal plots as they unfold, and also a comic edge to the commissario’s partner, Brigadier Maione, who is very cranky for most of the novel because he’s dieting: he believes his wife’s eyes are wandering and that losing weight is his best move to get her back. And everywhere he goes, people are eating! He can’t avoid food: the smell of it, the sight of it, the temptation of it. The poor man! These lighter elements leaven the novel, which is darker than the first also because the political climate has become more grimly dangerous. The series is set in the 1930s, and in this novel Fascist thugs and operatives play direct roles, threatening and killing. Even here, though, de Maurizio complicates simple dichotomies of good and evil with his interlinked themes of love and pain: “in the world that the two of us were helping to create,” someone high up in the Fascist Part eventually admits to Ricciardi, “there was no place for people like us. And there never will be.”

The idea of people in their “place” is (as the title tells us) another recurrent theme of the novel. Naples itself, as a place, has a vivid presence, but different characters experience their own place in it, in society, in their families in very different ways. The most conservative ideas of place — that people should not seek to rise outside their class, for instance, or that women should stay in their homes and keep their husbands — turn out to be the most damaging, and to be congruent with Fascism, which is all about keeping people in line, discouraging independence, difference, or resistance. Against the rigid Fascistic insistence on order, Everyone In Their Place sets the disruptive power of love, which may itself be deadly (especially, as Ricciardi experiences, when it turns to jealousy) but which is also the world’s best hope precisely because it cannot be ruled or contained. “You can’t fight love, Commissario,” Ricciardi is told by someone who has tried:

Because if you fight it you’re bound to lose. Inevitably. And so you need to take the initiative, and you need to pluck this love, the way you might one of these flowers. When you love, then you find that you love the world as well, and you want to sing, and shout, and laugh about nothing at all, in the light of day.

Nothing could be less like the commissario’s usual way of being in the world! As the novel ends, though, he has not only solved the murder but also accepted that happiness might be worth the risk.

“The Sorrow of the Dead”: Maurizio de Giovanni, I Will Have Vengeance


I see it. I feel it, the sorrow of the dead who remain attached to a life they no longer have. I know it; I hear the sound of the blood draining away. The mind that deserts them, the brain clinging by the fingernails to the last shred of life as it runs out. Love, you say? If you only knew how much death there is in your love …

It turns out I do have a little time for reading and writing in among the essays and exams (it’s better for everyone if you don’t get too single-minded about marking, after all). So tonight I was able to finish up Maurizio de Giovanni’s I Will Have Vengeance, which Steve Donoghue kindly sent my way after he learned I had never read any of the Commissario Ricciardi mysteries. (Steve has written about the series a few times at his blog and in Open Letters Weekly.)

I enjoyed  I Will Have Vengeance very much. It is an atmospheric whodunit set in Mussolini’s Italy in 1931. The case itself is a murder mystery wrapped in opera – specifically, the famous duo of Cavelleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci: de Giovanni elegantly combines his own plot with the themes and stories of the operas, and especially with the powerful emotions evoked by and in the music.

Commissario Ricciardi is an opera skeptic: “he didn’t like the theatrical representation of emotions,” we’re told. Listening to one of the novel’s many opera enthusiasts, he wonders “how opera, mere make-believe, could produce such emotion.” It’s understandable that he would resist such artificial stimulation, as he has abundant experience of real, if vicarious, suffering: the strange and somewhat risky gimmick of the series is that he sees dead people — or, rather, dying people:

He saw the dead. Not all of them, and not for long: only those who had died violently, and only for a period of time that revealed extreme emotion, the sudden energy of their final thoughts. He saw them as though in a photograph that captured the moment their lives ended, one whose contours slowly faded until they disappeared. Better yet, he saw them as in a film, like those he sometimes saw at the movies, only the same scene kept playing over and over again.

Risky, as I said, because this could easily be a trick that feels as artificial as Ricciardi believes operatic melodrama to be. But I thought de Giovanni pulled it off, partly because he makes Ricciardi’s visions interesting and often moving, and also because he emphasizes not their inexplicability but the psychic toll they take on Ricciardi, who cannot go for a walk or enjoy an espresso without some horrid violence flashing on his inward eye. De Giovanni integrates these chilling moments into his narrative with so little specific notice that I wasn’t always sure if we were seeing a death that is present — in our present, that is — or absent. Here’s an example will give you the idea, both of this device and of the bleak overall tone and imagery of the novel:ricciardi2

The cold wind gradually grew stronger as the tram clambered up the hill, trudging along; Ricciardi could tell from the swaying of the vegetation that was now more dense. Trees, shrubs, cultivated fields, dirt paths leading into the countryside; here and there a villa surrounded by palm trees. On either side of the road — the tramway running down the middle of it — were occasional shacks with women washing clothes and children playing outdoors. A boy with a dog and two goats tied to a rope was selling ricotta cheese and bread to a small group of bricklayers at a construction site. One of them, standing a little apart, had his head bent in an unnatural way. The Commissario looked away: one of the thousands of workplace accidents, which no one ever heard about.

Actually, I’m still not sure what he’s seeing here: is this broken man dead or living? The reality is clearer, and creepier, when Ricciardi sees a little girl outside his cafe, carrying “a bundle of rags, perhaps a doll”:

Her left arm was missing: a fragment of white bone protruded from the torn flesh, splintered like a piece of fresh wood. Her hip was staved in, her chest cavity crushed. A tram, Ricciardi thought. The girl stared at him then, all of a sudden, held out the rag doll to him: ‘This is my daughter. I feed her and bather her.’ Ricciardi set down the cup, paid, and went out. Now he would feel cold for the rest of the day.

Against the chill of all this reiterated suffering we get Ricciardi’s own effortful humanity, which in this case becomes dedicated (as it does for so many fictional detectives) to reconciling the competing demands of law and justice. There’s a glimmer of warmth, too, in his relationship (if that’s the right word) with the young woman he watches every night from his window (to her satisfaction, we discover, which saves the situation from being uncomfortably voyeuristic).

I Will Have Vengeance is the first of the Commissario Ricciardi mysteries. Though (as the translator’s note at the end spells out) de Giovanni is meticulous in his recreation of the period, the historical context is mostly just background here — the murder victim, an opera singer, is admired by Il Duce and so the higher-ups put extra pressure on the Commissario to solve the case. There are some comments about the relentless emphasis of the regime on order and conformity, which is contrasted with the city’s unruliness as well as people’s emotional turbulence. I’ll be interested to see if the later books draw us and the Commissario more deeply into the era’s troubled politics. Happily, Steve also sent me the newest one, The Bottom of Your Heart — though I wonder if I should jump straight to the seventh book or work my way up to it.

The books are published in English translations by Europa Editions, in case you think they look interesting.