Book Review: "I Will Have Vengeance" by Maurizio De Giovanni (Book 1 of the Commissario Ricciardi Series)

Hunger and love are the two axes of the world

-- Thibault

The Incident had taught him that hunger and love are the source of all atrocities, whatever forms they may take: pride, power, envy, jealousy.

-- Maurizio De Giovanni, "I will have vengeance"

One of the joys of following your favorite set of characters through a series of adventures is becoming acquainted with their growth - as a character, a plot-mover, a person, or even as a personification of an ideal. The best stories engage us, invite us into a bold new world, and we plunge in wholeheartedly, traveling with our friendly dramatis personae as their lives ebb and flow through fortune and misery, pain and redemption, fall and rise, to the very end. We embrace the lives of the made-believe, and in the process, transform a bit of ourselves into a new persona in our own stories. That is how one typically approaches a series of books - a series of linear progression in tandem with the story of the characters. This, however, is not one such journey. But then, this story, is also not a typically crime noir series.

Having read the third book of the series (limited public library availability clause here) before the first two, my experience this time around was that of a judge presiding over a criminal trial (in keeping with the theme of the stories?) As someone who was already privy to future events and character development of protagonists in the series, the reading of the first two novels felt like an unfolding of a series of exhibits, that aimed to reveal their fundamental motivation, aspiration, fears and hopes! This in itself was a novel reading experience, and helped provide a slightly different perspective on the process of reading and absorbing what was being read.

It can be generally agreed that the task of providing a solid bedrock for characters to stand on and chart their growth in a lucid fashion is difficult to pull off for the best of writers, but Maurizio Giovanni succeeds in doing so, without an ounce of literary pretentiousness or gimmicks. While the joy of being a pioneer in a literary landscape remains the de-facto experience for readers, this slow, unchronological unfolding of events, narratives, and personas brought home a very different, and yet, completely satisfying, reading experience. It replaced the voracious hunger for "what-happened-next?" with a more measured understanding that allowed for extended pauses as the reading went on. Having experienced the world of Commissario Ricciardi in such a roundabout way, it felt natural to bundle up the entire experience into a coherent discussion. Hence, this first part of a two-part discussion about the books.

The first novel, titled "I will have vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi" introduces us to the protagonists in the tales set in 1930 Naples, a city under the thaw of the Fascist regime. We learn about the unique gift that Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, the child of a country Baron, acquires as a little boy exploring the woods in his estate - the ability to witness the last moments of people who have met horrifying, unnatural deaths. We also learn that this ability is probably inherited from his mother, who, unable to bear the weight of the immense sorrows that she was exposed to, succumbed to her illness, leaving little Luigi in the care of his nanny, his tata. It is no wonder then, that Luigi does not want to inflict his affliction on others - he leads a solitary life, his tata, the only family he has. He has a deep, but unexpressed, bond with his subordinate Brigadier Raffaele Maione, who cares for him as he would for his dead son. He also shares a silent romance with Enrica Colombo, his neighbor and daughter of a local hat merchant.

The murder of a prominent tenor in his own dressing room at the San Carlo theater, kicks off the mystery. Ricciardi arrives on the scene to face the spectre of deceased, Arnaldo Vezzi. Signor Vezzi is bleeding from a fatal wound, with tears running down his face, and repeating these lines from the opera Pagliacci endlessly - "I will have vengeance. My rage shall know no bounds. And all my love. Shall end in hate..." It feels like an accident, a scuffle gone wrong. But the door was locked from the inside, and there are footprints under the window. Not to mention the appearance of a very odd cushion that is mysteriously spotless in an otherwise blood-spattered crime scene! Ricciardi commences his investigation into the world of Italian opera, where egos, talent, and political connections enforce a feudal divide quite similar to the class division under the Fascist regime. During the course of the investigation, he meets Arnaldo's widow, Livia (who will play an important role in the third book, of course). Their story arc is a familiar theme explored in Italian noir - hunger and love, sometimes not exclusive. Giovanni takes care to not turn it into a soap opera by keeping both the players grounded in their own personalities. One of the most intriguing (and revealing) moments between Luigi and Livia is towards the end of the story, when he describes to her, in detail, how and why her husband was killed. Coming from the other side of the timeline, her actions in the subsequent books now feel naturally following from this encounter. But this is a noir story, first and foremost, and Giovanni spins a wonderful murder mystery against the backdrop of an officially sanctioned "bright future" by the Fascist regime. The investigation takes many twists and turns, and provides a very unsettling, but perfectly-noir ending.

Anne Milano Appel brings the world of Commissario Ricciardi to English readers, and her style is very precise, every sentence well thought out in terms of its weight and ability to engage the readers. She brings a dash of erudite flavor to the volume by also providing a detailed afterword with chapter wise references to the lives and times in Mussolini's Italy. This is not to say that the translation takes anything away from the usual visceral impact intended in crime noir. Here are a few examples:

"On nights when the rain beat against his window and he couldn’t get to sleep, he often recalled a crime scene where the image of a baby, sitting in the washbasin in which he had drowned, reached out his little hand toward the exact spot where his mother had stood, seeking help from his own murderess. He felt the baby’s unconditional, absolute love."

"Ricciardi did not like the opera. He didn't like the crowded places, the tangle of souls, sensations and emotions. ... As a result, he was contemptuous of those colorful costumes, those modulated voices, those archaic cultured words in the mouths of poor devils who were actually starving to death."

Highly recommended!