Maurizio de Giovanni, I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi, translated from Italian by Anne Milano Appel (Hersilia Press, 2012 ). An intriguing debut novel featuring the mournful Commissario Ricciardi 4 stars
Opening sentence: The dead child was standing motionless at the intersection between Santa Teresa and the museum.
I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi was originally published in 2007 and is the first in a series featuring Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, Commissario of Police with the Regia Questura di Napoli in 1930s Italy. The series has already been translated into French, Spanish and German, and its fourth installment (Il giorno dei morti / The Day of the Dead) won the prestigious Premio Camaiore in 2011.
Given its setting in the Naples of 1931, nine years into Mussolini’s rule, I expected this book to be an interesting but fairly conventional historical crime novel. From the opening line, however, it’s made clear that this text offers readers something different – an investigative figure able to see the dead and hear their last anguished utterances, which (in some cases) can be used to shed light on the manner and cause of their death.
Opting to employ this kind of narrative device is exceedingly risky and difficult to pull off. However, de Giovanni selects just the right style and tone to allow the reader to suspend disbelief, one that I found a little reminiscent of magical realist authors such as Isabel Allende:
“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” (p. 12).
Ricciardi’s daily exposure to the turbulent emotions of the dead leaves him an introverted, isolated and damaged individual, who is watched over by devoted family servant Rosa at home and by Brigadier Raffaele Maione at work. The original title of the novel, il senso del dolore (which can be translated as ‘a sense of sorrow’ / ‘a sense of pain’), could apply equally to the sorrow radiating from the departed and to its effect on Ricciardi. His is an interesting, nuanced character, imbued with an appealing stoicism when handling a ‘life sentence’ (p. 12) of receiving messages from the restless dead.
So can I Will Have Vengeance also be viewed as a historical crime novel? In many respects, yes. Mussolini’s fascist regime is mentioned very early on, and the social framework within which Ricciardi has to operate is visible throughout the text. For example, Ricciardi is shown musing on the regime’s attitude to crime, which supposedly does not exist within ordered fascist society: ‘No crime, only safety and well-being dictated by the regime. So it was ordained, by decree. Yet the dead kept vigil in the streets, in homes, demanding peace and justice’ (p.99). He is also shown having to manage a demanding superior, Vice Questore Garzo, who is loyal to the regime, albeit for personal gain rather than due to ideological conviction.
However, unlike other crime novels featuring investigators working within repressive regimes, such as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther (Nazi Germany), Tim Robb Smith’s Leo Demidov and William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev (Stalin’s Russia), there is no sustained examination of the moral difficulties encountered by a policeman working in the service of the state and of the political dangers he might face. Ricciardi appears to be largely apolitical, is shielded by his record as an outstanding investigator, and does things ‘his way’ with relative ease when investigating the murder of renowned tenor Maestro Vezzi (a wonderfully drawn character, whose case will delight opera buffs). It will be interesting to see if this portrayal of Ricciardi remains the same in subsequent books within the series, or whether he is shown becoming embroiled in sticky political situations further down the line.
In sum: this is a very enjoyable read, which expertly fuses elements of the historical crime novel with a distinctive, other-worldly dimension, courtesy of its police investigator’s highly unusual abilities. I look forward to reading the other novels in the series soon.
The first chapter of the novel is available on the Hersilia Press website.
With thanks to Hersilia Press for providing me with a proof copy to review.
Mrs Peabody awards I Will Have Vengeance an entertaining, ghostly 4 stars.