There are reasons why I ought not to like this novel and this series. The main character, commissario Ricciardi, is politically neutral in fascist Italy, and believes that politics is unimportant. And he has a supernatural ability (or defect): he can hear the last thoughts or words of the recently dead. If you know me, or have read my other reviews, you know that I have no patience with belief in the supernatural, so this alone should have been fatal to my enjoyment of the book. There were other flaws, as well. Every so often (in chapters 18, 28, 46, and elsewhere) de Giovanni adopts a lyrical style in which he repeats a certain short phrase between each paragraph. Maybe this works in Italian, but in the English translation it comes across as florid and artificial.
Despite these problems I liked this novel, a lot. The Ricciardi character is compelling and intriguing, mostly because of the reticence he feels about becoming involved with other people; a reticence born of being constantly confronted with the voices and thoughts of the dead. This curse is something he can share with no one else, and so he feels destined to live his life in solitude. The only people in his life are his old nursemaid, Rosa, who takes care of his house and his money (he’s quite rich) and who he loves dearly; and his sidekick, brigadier Maione, a great lumbering man who is the only policeman on the force willing to work with Ricciardi.
So Ricciardi constantly feels the weight of his loneliness, and feels also the presence of death.
I’ve thought a good deal about why de Giovanni introduced the strange ability to hear the voices of the recently dead. The effect of it is to instill a sense of sorrow and pity, as Ricciardi hears the small beggar boy wishing he could make a few more pennies, or the young construction worker with the broken neck calling for his mother to save him, or the woman on the way to buy groceries, reciting to herself the list of items she is to buy. But if that were all there were to it, pity and sorrow, it would scarcely be worth the trouble. I think that at another level those voices remind us that at the instant of our death our lives are frozen into the past, without possibility of redemption or improvement. All that we’ve left undone will remain undone; the wrongs that we have committed can never be amended; the work that we have done will be judged and, in all likelihood, soon forgotten; the love that we have given and received will fade from memory. And so Ricciardi is constantly faced with those existential facts, and carries on as best he can.
The best part of this novel concerned brigadier Maione. All of the novel deals with the causes and effects of revenge, and Maione is no exception. He is a man of no great depth, but one who is dependable and incorruptible. But he learns something in this novel that presents him with a seemingly unsolvable contradiction; and he is drawn towards doing something that must be done, but which will destroy his life and the lives of those around him. And this contradiction leads to the part of this book that made me forgive the flaws I listed earlier: chapter 50 is one of the most moving chapters I have ever read.
Finally, the book works pretty well as a police procedural. The clues are all there, basically, though you would have to be a master sleuth to see them. The voices of the dead played no part in the solution of the puzzle - though I would say that de Giovanni used those voices as excellent red herrings, yet made them fit perfectly with the subtle clues that led to the resolution. And the side plots were excellently choreographed to eliminate any possibility of seeing the criminal investigation as plodding or mundane.
Finally, the food! It is Christmas in Naples and there is food in nearly every chapter: fish, prosciutto, lemons, roasted artichokes, every kind of pastry, meat on the grill - you name it. I love reading about food, and Italian food is nearly my favorite, so this was a treat.