In Naples, two men meet for lunch. They squeeze into a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, above a steep and narrow alley—the sort of space that still defines the old centro—where one declares: “Tell me how anyone can doubt the existence of God after eating a margherita pizza.”
A small joke, fond, the line is typical of the pleasures in The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, the latest book from Maurizio de Giovanni, translated by Antony Shugaar. This novel makes nine in four years, all of them published in English as part of Europa’s “World Noir” series, and all serving their noir macchiato: flecked with bright Neapolitan detail. The city seen in the six mysteries that preceded this one, however, was older, the Fascist Naples. Also those novels featured a Commissario with a psychic gift. The formula made de Giovanni’s novels best sellers (according to his latest bio, more than a million copies have been sold), but in the new novel no one has mystic abilities and the setting is the twenty-first century. The victim has an immigrant maid and the detective a cell phone.
The update isn’t a marketing risk, really. The current incarnation of the ancient seaport enjoys, if that’s the word, considerable notoriety. The hardscrabble lives of Elena Ferrante, and Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, suggest a city perfectly suited to a detective series. The Europa website already lists the next entry, Darkness, and meanwhile, the puppeteer is keeping his hands busy. In Pizzofalcone, de Giovanni has chosen a mixed neighborhood, where scufflers live side by side with the moneyed. Here a murder investigation can turn up more than enough criminal activity, plus romantic complication, to occupy the titular “bastards” a long time.
The slur refers to the police themselves. A recent drug scandal has smeared the precinct’s reputation and left several officers behind bars. To replace those, law enforcement administration has culled people from around the city, pulling together—what else?—a gang of misfits. Each of the new hires bears an old wound, a painful secret, or both. Indeed, the locals still on the squad may suffer worse, and all of them know from bitter experience that, whatever cases they solve, they’ll never clean up Gotham.
With so much unease festering, in so many dark places, it’s natural for de Giovanni to keep changing points of view. Police procedurals usually proceed in this way, switching from the detective’s take on things to the thug’s, and then to a secondary character’s (if not a bystander’s). In Pizzofalcone, the author leads off his acknowledgements with a tip of the cap to Ed McBain, whose tales of the 87th Precinct always sprawl into multiple perspectives. In de Giovanni’s hands, unfortunately, the kaleidoscope tumbles its colors and shapes around without forming effective patterns, at first. Theopening pages do introduce our lead detective and the Wild Bunch around him, in alternating chapters. The other chapters, however, each run a few puzzling italicized pages: one presenting a pointillist stream-of-consciousness, another an agitated quarrel between two lovers, and another the ill-informed musings of a teenage girl. Again and again, names and circumstances are left murky. The details get sorted out in time, but for his suspense, de Giovanni depends dangerously long on mere withholding.
On the other hand, the roving point of view allows even the foggiest material to flash with local color. Our first visit with the teenager, for instance, mentions her basso, one of the city’s ground-floor tenements crowded with the poor, and plays up the contrast between that space and the well-appointed new one in which she’s now put up. These details and others help the reader get the picture: A penniless young beauty has found a Sugar Daddy. The hard bargain is typical for de Giovanni’s people, especially after he starts following his ill-assorted police crew home. When one detective falls into dinner conversation with his dead wife, a suicide, the shift in perspective adds something; it intensifies the isolation.
So things begin in chaos, in need of hero—a classic setup—and de Giovanni’s hero provides enough humanity to anchor the early going. He’s Giuseppe Lojacono, a transfer from Sicily. He too suffers private turmoil, including a divorce, and his teenage daughter still lives down on the island. The girl needs her “Papi,” though; she calls him at difficult times, and also, at novel’s end, delivers one of its best surprises. Despite these distractions, Lojacono has recently managed to collar a child murderer in Naples. That case was detailed in The Crocodile (2013), de Giovanni’s lone previous contemporary story, and in Pizzofalcone it creates still more complications for Lojacono.
A couple of these, to be sure, are romantic. A “very beautiful” city attorney smolders for him, and a number of other hot and bothered people dress the noir set. Indeed, the murder that drives the plot looks like a crime of passion. A wealthy woman of a certain age has had her head cracked open, in her own home, with no evidence of forced entry. First her estranged husband seems implicated, then his volcanic mistress, but while each of these gets a big onstage number, with legs flashing, they eventually have little to do with finding the killer. Instead, others turn up the key clues, in out-of-the-way places, closing this part of the show diminuendo. The real ruckus de Giovanni raises isn’t that of a lovers’ quarrel that ends with a blow to the head, but rather that of the eventful urban opera around them, where “it was as if the souk of Casablanca . . . had been transported into the center of Milan.”
John Domini has three novels set in Naples and has just completed a memoir about his experiences there. In June his new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!, will be published by Dzanc Books.