Book Review: "By My Hand," by Maurizio De Giovanni

"What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?"

-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

It is almost Christmas in Naples, and the folks of the city are all busy with their manger displays. A rich historical tradition, the mangers encapsulate the Nativity scene with unique twist of modern touches and additions.  Every household, rich or poor, strives to buy or create the perfect scene, the perfect Christmas, the perfect family. All that is, except one -- a port official and his wife are found brutally murdered in their home, with their almost perfect manger scene missing the idol of Saint Joseph and the figure of the Holy Mother rested against an ass. Commissario Ricciardi and Brigadier Maione are summoned to the bloody crime scene, and so begins the new cycle of adventures of the reclusive Commissario and his friend. 

The only clues at the crime scene are the enigmatic last words uttered by both the victims -- the wife's words a model of formal etiquette befitting her social position, and the husband's, a declaration of defiance in the face of death. The police learn that the husband was a well-placed officer in the port militia, who was promoted in a very short period of time due to his successful monitoring of the fishermen folk along the coast. But not everything is as it seems, and Ricciardi and his team may face their most challenging quest to bring the perpetrator to justice. A shattered figurine of Saint Joseph (the Father, and patron saint of the working class) offers the only physical clue, and provides a unifying theme for the narrative.

As with the earlier books in the series, Giovanni explores the relationship of hunger and love in all their myriad forms (luminescent, steadfast, dark, twisted), but adds a postfix that takes this relationship to a more logical, but intimate progression -- How does the growing understanding of hunger and love (in the world created by the author) now affect the choice of actions of its inhabitants? As title suggests, the story closely examines the personal ramifications of this question in the lives of the protagonists, large and small. Ricciardi, the loner, finds himself at the crossroads of his lonely life, and the possibility of obtaining a partner in his dark journey. Brigadier Maione, a lifelong custodian of the law, agonizes over a potential action that could turn him into a judge, jury and executioner. Doctor Modo makes a choice that reveals the best of humanity in him, but places him once again in the crosshairs of the Fascist Regime. Rosa, Livia and Enrica, on the other hand, are driven to action in the name of love. And so it is with the new (and incidental) characters introduced in this story.

Giovanni presents the internal 'hands' (the driver of external actions) of his characters through their literal namesake. A striking visual metaphor that runs throughout the narrative is the simple act of wood-carving -- just as the layers of wood part and fall off to reveal the figurine inside, do the actions of the characters reveal their true inner self. The implement, the carving knife, in the hands of one, leads him to the road to redemption, while in the hands of another, turns into a murder weapon. In the end, the author reminds us forcefully, we are what we can be - by our hands!

Highly recommended!