First Sentence: The murderous hands work unhurriedly in the dim light.
Christmas is coming to Naples, a city now under a fascist regime and where people live in tremendous poverty in contrast to the luxurious apartment in which the bodies of a militia officer and his wife have been found. While searching out the killer, or killers, Commisaario Ricciardi is concerned for his elderly former nurse and torn between two women, while Brigadier Maione is dealing with a crisis of his own.
One does not enter gently into this story. Instead, one is nearly overwhelmed by the visual and narrative contrasts that attract and repel us. However, the one thing one does not do is stop reading.
The two principal characters of Ricciardi and Maione are such wonderful contrasts to one another, yet they balance each other perfectly. Maione provides a bit of light, whereas Ricciardi believes himself to be the dark due to his ability? curse? gift? of the Deed, which causes him to see the final seconds of those who’ve died by violence. What’s nice is that these final seconds don’t help Ricciardi solve the crimes, as the words only make sense in the end.
Supporting them is the always delightful Dr. Moto and his newly adopted dog; Bambinelle, Maione’s informant; Rosa, who has been with Ricciardi since his childhood; and Erica, the object of unrequited (so far) love on both parts. It is the balance between being a police procedural, and being a book about people and their relationships, that help make this book so compelling.
The thoughts of the killer are chilling. While this is a device that can be intrusive, it works here and provides a frightening look at the dichotomy of the killer’s mind. In complete contrast Livia, the wealthy widow in love with Ricciardi, provide us a sense of place and a view of the people of Naples, “Waking up to the calls of the strolling vendors, the noise rising from the streets, the songs. And the smells, the thousands of pots bubbling busily away, the thousands of frying pans sizzling, the pastry shops competing to present their masterpieces. Everyone had dreamed up a calling, a profession; every one of them was trying to eke out a living.”
There are two principal grounding elements to the story; the crashing of the waves representing conflict, and Christmas with all the emotions surrounding it, which provides wonderful segues to increasingly more serious aspects of the story—“Christmas is an emotion. It’s a strong as a pounding heart, as light as a fluttering eyelash. But it can be swept away by a gust of wind and never come at all.” de Giovanni does a wonderful job of linking traditions of the present to those of the distant past, and of teaching us that about which we may not have known, such as the symbolism of, and meaning behind each figural element of the nativity.
And, of course, being set in Italy, there is food—“boiling posts of the maccaronari, or macaroni vendors, and the posts of oil for the fried-pizza man, who also fried piping-hot panzarotti turnovers and potato croquettes…” Yet, there is also a wonderful definition of faith—“Our faith wasn’t made to erect barriers, walls, or iron bars between us and love; it was made to increase the presence of love in our lives, so that we can give of ourselves and live in a state of communion…”
“By My Hand” is a more serious book than its predecessors as it relates to the politics of the time: one senses the changes and coming threat with each book. It is also a very good murder mystery/police procedural. However, at its heart it is a book about people and relationships, and motives. The motive here is a sad one, yet the resolutions of the conflicts related to the principle characters will warm your heart, and make you anxious to read the next book.