1931, book review, character-driven mystery, clues in plain sight, compelling detective, crime and emotion, empathic detective, Fascist Italy, historical fiction, lightning narrative, Maurizio de Giovanni, Mussolini, mystery, Naples, opera, well-crafted whodunit
Review: I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
Europa, 2012. 212 pp. $16
Commissario of Police Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi doesn’t need his job, strictly speaking. Financially secure, a rarity in Naples in 1931, and of aristocratic lineage, he could be a gentleman of leisure if he wished, marry a woman with blue blood like his, and live pleasantly, attending parties and the opera. But Ricciardi’s job lends him his sole purpose in life, and the reasons why make him one of the most compelling fictional detectives I know of.
He has no friends or family, save a seventy-year-old woman who was his nanny during his childhood, and who feels free to lecture him on his workaholic habits as she serves him dinner, typically an hour before midnight. Neither sociable nor personable, Ricciardi puzzles most of his subordinates—indeed, most people he meets—and if it weren’t for his brilliant track record, nobody would want to work for him. His brigadier, Maione, is the only policeman on the force to realize how everyone misjudges Ricciardi, whose deep green eyes seem perpetually full of sadness. If anything, the commissario feels too much.
But even Maione doesn’t know why, or what ghosts lurk in his boss’s mind—literally. Ever since Ricciardi stumbled across a murder victim in his parents’ garden as a child, a scene he privately euphemizes as the Incident, he’s been deluged by empathy for the dead. As he walks around Naples, he hallucinates corpses he’s seen in the past, imagines what they felt just before they died, and, remarkably enough, uses that perception as an investigating technique. That’s how Ricciardi lives his work, for he’s known all his life “that crime is the dark side of emotion.”
The Incident had taught him that hunger and love are the source of all atrocities, whatever forms they may take: pride, power, envy, jealousy. In all cases, hunger and love. They were present in every crime, once it was pared down to its essentials, once the tinsel trappings of its outward appearance were stripped away. Hunger or love, or both, and the pain they generate. All that suffering, which he alone was a constant witness to.
And oh, by the way, Ricciardi hates opera and its excess of feeling.
His singular opinion on that subject for his time and place figures in I Will Have Vengeance, for not only does the title come from an opera, the murder victim is a famous tenor. In life, Maestro Arnaldo Vezzi’s singing and stage presence commanded devotion from adoring audiences, but nobody liked him up close, especially not the managers, cast, and crews who had to work with him, and whom he terrorized. Even so, his star power was such that money flowed in his direction, and wherever he performed, he drew packed houses.
Consequently, who’d kill the goose that laid so many golden eggs? What provocation would push a member of the opera company to commit that murder and sweep all practicality aside? Those are the questions Ricciardi wishes he could answer, for the killing happened in Vezzi’s dressing room during an intermezzo, which points toward a perpetrator who’d have free backstage access.
Besides the hard-working Maione, assisting Ricciardi is a priest who loves opera. Thanks to a network of favors granted and received, Don Pierino Fava manages to witness performances from a spot just behind the curtain, as he does the fateful night in question. At Ricciardi’s request, he explains the opera’s story line and the ins and outs of operatic performance—details that matter to the investigation, dear reader, so pay attention. But it’s not just business between priest and commissario; the good Don Pierino, though flabbergasted that Ricciardi hates opera, also senses the shadow over the man’s soul.
I Will Have Vengeance moves like lightning, without waste motion or words, proving once more that a character-driven mystery can be just as riveting and suspenseful as its plot-centered cousin. As with the opera, every detail matters, and all’s in plain sight, something I appreciate. There are no tricks here, no rabbits pulled out of hats. I also like the departmental politics, and how Ricciardi handles his boss, an incompetent with friends in high places, which is to say that the commissario shows him no respect. Occasionally, that allows de Giovanni to work in subtle political commentary about Mussolini or his Fascist regime.
Another subplot I like concerns the sole outlet for Ricciardi’s softer feelings, a young woman who lives in a building across from his, and whom he likes to watch embroider at night. Trust me, it’s not creepy, and there’s more going on than even the hawk-eyed Ricciardi can guess.
I Will Have Vengeance is a masterful mystery, and I heartily recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.