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The Mysteries of Naples

Author: Alan Massie
Newspaper: Wall Street Journal
Date: May 27 2016

The wise crime novelist repeats himself. He sticks like the proverbial cobbler to his last. He makes some part of the world, usually some city, his own. His hero may be a loner like Philip Marlowe, but, more often, he will be surrounded by helpers—sidekicks or subordinates. Neapolitan novelist Maurizio de Giovanni adheres enjoyably to these rules.

Successful detectives used to be eccentrics. Sherlock Homes establishing the pattern, followed by Agatha Christie’s conceited and fastidious dandy Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’s scholarly and barely credible Lord Peter Wimsey and Rex Stout’s superbly absurd Nero Wolfe. But then crime novelists moved toward realism—giving, as Chandler put it, murder back to the sort of people who commit it. Following in the wake of Simenon’s Maigret, the investigator became more often a professional, a policeman, an ordinary man, sometimes a dull and depressed one like Henning Mankell’s Wallander, sometimes a caring family man like Donna Leon’s Brunetti, dismayed by the cruelty and corruption of the world.

Maurizio de Giovanni’s hero, Commissario Ricciardi, combines both types. This is as it should be, for the seven novels that recount his story are set in the Golden Age of detective fiction, the 1930s—even if Fascist Italy is anything but golden. Ricciardi is a policeman, working within a constraining system, but he bears some resemblance to other aristocratic investigators of that period, for he is a landowner and indeed a baron, even if he chooses not to use his title. Moreover, he is an eccentric with a rare and troubling gift. Ever since, as a boy, he first encountered violent death, he has been possessed of a mysterious ability to hear the last words spoken, or thought, by the dead; as he walks around Naples, figures of the dead rise before him, a look of appeal or reproach in their eyes. This is fanciful and hard to credit; yet as you read you accept it as being imaginatively true. Temperamentally a solitary, Ricciardi nevertheless has loyal comrades: his second in command, the honorable family man Brigadier Maione; the rashly outspoken anti- Fascist Dr. Modo. They are a team, three musketeers, teasing one another, joking with one another, trusting one another. Then there is Bambinella, the brigadier’s prize informer, a transvestite prostitute acquainted with all the city’s scandal and gossip.

Each novel is dominated by a single crime. In “I Will Have Vengeance” (Europa, 216 pages, $16), a star tenor is found covered in blood in his dressing room at the San Carlo Opera House. In “Blood Curse” (Europa, 343 pages, $17), an old woman who doubles as a fortuneteller and moneylender is beaten to death. “Everyone in Their Place” (Europa, 379 pages, $17) introduces a duchess smothered and shot in the grand palazzo that she shares with her bedridden husband and the stepson who hates her. A little street boy is found dead in “The Day of the Dead” (Europa, 363 pages, $18): Was it natural causes, accident or murder? In “Viper” (Europa, 328 pages, $17), the most beautiful prostitute in Naples is killed in the brothel where she receives only two clients. In “By My Hand” (Europa, 348 pages, $17) a fascist militia officer and his wife are stabbed in their smart apartment. In “The Bottom of Your Heart” (Europa, 456 pages, $18), a distinguished doctor is hurled to his death from his office on the top floor of the hospital.

All the cases require Ricciardi and the brigadier to penetrate the dark quarters of the city and the equally dark corners of the human soul. The mysteries will be solved by a combination of dogged police work (often hampered by timid superior officers) and Ricciardi’s flashes of intuition. In several cases the murderer will be treated with sympathy.

The novels should be read consecutively, in the order in which they were written, for while each case is distinct, there are two continuous narratives. The first traces the solitary Ricciardi’s relations with three women. His housekeeper, Rosa, has cared for him since his early childhood, when she was his nanny; she worries about his ability to manage his life when she dies. Enrica, whom he watches from his bedroom window, develops with him a relationship of silent understanding and growing interest. Finally Livia, the widow of the murdered tenor, is a socialite and friend of Mussolini’s daughter. In the second novel, “Blood Curse,” she comes to live in Naples because of her attraction to the Commissario. The second narrative running through the seven novels follows the course of the brigadier’s marriage and the misunderstandings that may arise between two people who love and respect each other.

These are crime novels, but they are also historical ones, in this resembling, for example, Jonathan Rabb’s series set in inter-war Germany. Each investigation is complicated by the pervasive atmosphere of the Fascist state, by its network of spies and its corruption. Ricciardi, Brigadier Maione and Dr. Modo all become, at different times, objects of suspicion. The police are watchers but also watched. Fascist Italy was not as brutal as Nazi Germany, but it was a state where everyone was under surveillance and where the disaffected disappeared. Ricciardi is properly wary of the secret police but must on occasion seek and accept their help. There is more than one kind of corruption.

At the heart of the series is the wonderful teeming city of Naples, where rich and poor still live cheek by jowl, where a grand, noble palazzo is flanked by narrow and sordid lanes in which people die miserably in filthy germ-infested cellars. It is a city “accustomed to working in the shadows, but always outdoors”; a city of gorgeous churches and barefoot kids with heads shaved to protect them from lice; a city that smells of the sea on one side and is open to the country on the other, every day admitting carts laden with fruit and vegetables for the markets. It is a city throbbing with religious fervor, where shopkeepers trading in images of the Madonna and the saints do a roaring trade and where every household has its manger scene at Christmas. Yet Naples is still half-pagan at heart; everyone knows the gesture required to ward off the threat of the “jettatura,” the man possessed of the power of the “evil eye.” It’s a city devoted to children and the cult of the family but one in which men line up with little or no sense of shame waiting their turn at the brothel and where the transvestite Bambinella is never short of clients. It’s a city that endures extremes of weather, enervating heat and lashing rain, a city Maurizio de Giovanni evidently loves and delights in offering to his readers.

These are ingenious crime novels, written with intelligence and enthusiasm. But though they are ingenious, they are not primarily puzzles, as Golden Age mysteries were. Near the end of the seventh book, “The Bottom of Your Heart,” the brigadier says, after the crime has been solved: “There are times, Commissa’, I’ll tell you the truth when I’d rather not know why certain things happen. I say: can’t we just limit ourselves to finding out who did it, and be done with it?” But Ricciardi won’t have it. Knowledge of the facts isn’t enough by itself; you have to understand why. “Everything is connected to everything else. Like a string of pearls.”

These novels won’t, I daresay, be to everyone’s taste. Mr. de Giovanni is a discursive and sometimes rambling writer. But anyone who loves Italy and especially Naples, and anyone who seeks crime fiction that marries entertainment to illuminating reflections on history and the human condition, will surely find these novels fascinating and compelling.

—Mr. Massie writes about historical fiction for the Journal.

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