Book Review : "Everyone in their place," by Maurizio De Giovanni

“Alone. Yes, that's the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
― Stephen King

Continuing our exploration of crime noir, especially in modern Italian fiction, let us visit the intricately crafted universe of Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, a policeman with a penchant for solving even the most vexing cases. He is the star of a series of very popular novels, which sprung from an award-winning short story by the writer Maurizio De Giovanni. Originally available only in Italian, they are now being translated into English under the Europa Editions' World Noir Series. "Everyone in their place" is the third book in the Commissario Ricciardi Series, translated from Italian by Antony Shugaar. The book is a part of a quartet of noir novels that explore the world of Commissario Ricciardi through the seasonal changes. This book is subtitled "The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi."

Naples 1931 - facing one of the most brutal summers the city has ever seen - is simmering with an unspoken tension, as the city contends with the blazing heat and the rise of the Fascist Party. It is during these heated times, that the Commissario is called upon to solve the murder of the Duchess of Camparino, a mysterious and beautiful socialite with connections across the socio-political spectrum of Neapolitan class hierarchy. As the most successful policeman on the force, Ricciardi is put into an unenviable position of providing an expedited solution to the case, all the while being reminded of the political ramifications of the case by his incompetent boss, Angelo Garzo, the deputy chief of police. The list of primary suspects includes the husband (the Duke), the Duke's son from an earlier marriage (Ettore, who hates his new mother), and the woman's lover (Mario Capece, an editor with anti-Fascist leanings). A quirky ensemble of servants, family members and neighbors complete the cast of participants in this tense mystery.

However, this is not a typical crime noir, and Commissario Ricciardi is not a typical noir hero - he possesses the ability to "visualize" the last few moments of the lives of individuals who have suffered horrible, and often violent, deaths. Giovanni's strength as a writer lies squarely in taking this fantastical concept and not going overboard with it, i.e. not turning the novels into the direction of popular fantasy-crime a la the Harry Dresden books (or their equivalent.) Giovanni deftly explores and reveals, the impact such experiences would have on a person, especially if they were made aware of it at a very early age. Growing up with the visions as a constant companion, and unable to confide in anyone about his paranormal ability, the Commissario has become accustomed to being alone, in the truest definition of the term. Although this ability feels like a gift prima facie, the visions ("Deeds" as Ricciardi calls them) have left permanent scars on his psyche. Repeated encounters with the dead have left the Commissario unable to make any meaningful connections in the real-world, imparting him with a dour persona that almost everybody around him looks upon with suspicion, bordering on superstition.  

Almost, because as we see, there are a few individuals that care for him, each in their own way. There is Brigadier Maione, his trusted friend in the police force, Rosa, his tata, who has cared for him since he was a child, and Doctor Bruno Modo, ex-serviceman and a surgeon who also doubles as a medical examiner when needed. None of them are aware of Ricciardi's ability. Rounding up the tension are Enrica Colombo, Ricciardi's next-door-neighbor with whom he shares an unspoken romance, and Livia Vezzi, a stunningly beautiful singer and a wealthy widow, who is singularly determined to win the Commissario's heart.

Giovanni paints Naples as a city in a troubled transition - a city being slowly engulfed by the suffocating restrictions and declarations of the Fascist Party. This novel however, is not a story of a mass revolution. Rather, the author depicts the fundamental changes in the lifestyle of the general populace - the public employees, the press, the shopkeepers, the priests, the professionals, and also shines a light on the fringe elements of the European society during those times. The case serves as a smaller scale representation of the turbulent relationships between the upper class, the police, the Fascist Party, the left-leaning press and the isolated common population. The title is emblematic of the pervasive sentiment in the story - that everyone has an assigned place in the society, whether by choice, social norms, upbringing, or even Fascist declarations, and society is best served when everybody takes their rightful place, their specified roles and fulfills their assigned responsibilities. The book is written in a way that it can be read as a stand-alone book without reading the previous books in the series. Antony Shugaar's translation suitably captures the lyrical prose of the original - the book captures your attention from the first line, and then never lets go!

Having come into Commissario's universe on the third installment, I am now eager to read the other novels in this series!

Highly recommended!