We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.
-- Charles Bukowski
In the fourth installment of the Commissario Ricciardi series, Maurizio De Giovanni expertly weaves one of the most shocking stories of the series so far. Having explored various facets of hunger and love, and exposed us to their dark side, Giovanni comes up with an even grittier, disturbing account of hunger-and-love-gone-wrong that is bound to keep you awake for a few nights! The main premise of this story is the death of a scugnizzo (a street-child), who is found resting in a peaceful position on the steps leading up to the Capodimonte, just as the city is waking up to an autumn of uncertainty. The only other piece of evidence around the little boy is a stray dog, who seems to be his friend, sitting next to him.
All signs point to a straightforward case of accidental death - the hungry child ingested morsels left out as rat baits, and thereby died from the resulting poisoning. Even from the point of view of Commissario Ricciardi, there should be no official case at all - there is no phantom, no ghostly apparition, no evidence of foul-play, and indeed, no manifestation of the Deed, around the dead body. Even the public medical representative (and Ricciardi's friend) Dr. Bruno agrees that this was an accidental death. All signs point to an open-and-shut case, but Ricciardi is unable to shake off the feeling that he must keep looking into the boy's life to learn more about the death. His obsession with the death is fueled by the constant appearance of the dog, following Ricciardi everywhere, but always keeping his distance.
And herein lies the central conflict in the book. Naples is preparing for a visit by the Il Duce (Benito Mussolini) himself, and Ricciardi's boss would prefer to give the Fascist party leader an impression of an efficiently run police department and a city without crime. Coupled with the fact that the dead child had connections to the Church, and that both the police and the clergy seem highly inclined to wrap up the formal procedure as soon as possible, Ricciardi finds himself alone, figuratively and literally, looking into a world that he is expressly forbidden from investigating.
The investigation unfolds in two parallel threads, the past and the present, with the past giving the reader an intimate look at the horrifying life of the street-children (it is quite disturbing, yes). The story fits perfectly within the overall theme of the series, but flipping the "hunger" to Ricciardi - for the first time, he yearns for a glimpse of the Deed, however enigmatic, so that it can shed some light on the little boy's last moments. This hunger affects him, like a gradually creeping sickness of both mind and body, and his helplessness drives him to an explosive climax whose final reveal, is a cruel twist on what is generally considered the most immutable form of love. The revelation does take its toll on him - he is in the hospital and battling for his life, in the final moments of the story.
In true noir form, the ending is bittersweet, as it not only throws Ricciardi into mortal peril, but also brings all the actors in his life together, face-to-face, for the first time in the hospital corridor. His life, and his future life, hangs in a precarious imbalance between his hunger, his darkness and his loves.
Wonderful, wonderful read!