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Book Review: I Will Have Vengeance

I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardii will have vengeance

by Maurizio de Giovanni

translated by Anne Milano Appel

Europa Editions, 2013

“Io sangue voglio, all’ira m’abbandono, in odio tutto l’amor mio fini …”

These are the words 31-year-old Luigi Ricciardi, commissario of the Questura in 1931 Naples, hears from the great tenor Arnaldo Vezzi on the night of his death, quoting from the opera Pagliacci: I will have vengeance, My rage shall know no bounds. And all my love. Shall end in hate …” The essential twist, the little detail that’s made the Commissario Ricciardi mysteries such a huge hit in Italy for years (I Will Have Vengeance, first published in Italy in 2007, has finally now been translated into English, in a wonderfully headlong and sinuous job by Anne Milano Appel), is that the great tenor is dead before Ricciardi hears those lines – he hears them from the dead man’s stunned, bleeding ghost, trapped in the moment of his murder. Ever since he was a boy, Ricciardi has had this unsettling – and very much unwanted – ability: to see the living images of dead people – “Not all of them, and not for long: only those who had died violently, and only for a period of time that revealed extreme emotion, the sudden energy of their final thoughts.”

Maurizio de Giovanni so masterfully creates the murky atmosphere of this irresistible premise that we believe it long before we think to doubt it:

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.

The perpetual sense of frustrated justice that Ricciardi feels as a result of these visions propels him into police work, and the crucial advantage they give him in understanding crime scenes allows him to rise swiftly in his profession. His men – foremost among them Brigadier Maione, his middle-aged partner and the closest thing he has to a friend – know to let their spooky, reticent commissario enter a crime scene alone first; they respect his uncanny instincts; they have no idea he’s listening to the last obsessions of the dead. Ricciardi hears these dying thoughts – he alone sees the mangled and forlorn images of the just-dead, and he sees these images everywhere:

At the corner of Largo della Carita, as on the last several mornings there, Riccardi saw the image of a man who had been the victim of a pickpocket: he had fought back and had been savagely beaten with a stick. Brain matter oozed from the crushed skull and blood covered one eye; the other still flashed with rage, and the mouth with its broken teeth kept repeating incessantly that he would never let go of his things. Ricciardi thought about the thief, now impossible to find, swallowed up by the Quartieri; about hunger, about the price paid by the victim and his killer.

When it falls to his unit to investigate the death of Arnaldo Vezzi, Ricciardi is even more apprehensive than usual – he dislikes opera for precisely the reason so many of its devotees love it:

Then too, he didn’t like the theatrical representation of emotions. He knew them well, better than anyone else, he knew how they lived on in those who experienced them, rising in a wave that overwhelmed everything in its way.

Maurizio de Giovanni does a spectacular job of weaving this remarkable man and his remarkable ability into a decidedly real-world setting; Mussolini’s Italy is evoked with such well-chosen atmospheric details that the novel would be exceptional even without the twist of Ricciardi’s sad superpower.

But that added element makes the whole thing take off. The dead don’t comfort Ricciardi – they don’t even see him. They’re entirely wrapped up in their last thoughts, usually providing him – as in the case of the famous tenor – with “Rosebud”-style pronouncements that require unravelling. Ricciardi, the unmarried heir to an aristocratic heritage, is the sole possessor of these enigmatic clues, and that possession makes him even more solitary and lonely than the usual grim sleuths who populate crime noir novels. When he’s asked later in the book “Did you ever lose someone you loved dearly?” he laconically responds, “I know about absence.”

Europa Editions is to be heartily congratulated. The remaining Commissario Ricciardi  novels can’t appear soon enough.

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