Friday, April 13, 2012

I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni

Hersilia Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Il Senso del Dolore, 2007
translated by Anne Milano Appel
213 pp
(trade paper)

Naples in 1931 is the setting for this novel, about nine years into the rule of Mussolini and the Fascists.  Twenty-five years earlier, little Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, who had been mesmerized by Emilio Salgari's "Tiger of Malaysia," stories was pretending to be on an adventure out in the jungle when he came across a man with a pruning knife in his chest. The man spoke, and feeling the weight of his sorrow,  Luigi Alfredo ran home.  As it turned out, his description of what he saw jibed perfectly with a crime that had happened some five months earlier; this vision became known as "The Incident," a "scar on his soul" that was only the first of many such emotional encounters with the dead who had died violently:  He

"saw them as though in a photograph that captured the moment their lives ended, one whose contours slowly faded until they disappeared...The image of the dead man, bearing the marks of his wounds and his expression at the very last moment before the end; and his final words, repeated endlessly, as if to conclude something the soul had begun before being torn away...He grasped their sorrow, their surprise, their rage, their misery. Even their love."

*** Umm, hellooo -- this sounds like Haley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense and it was at this juncture, four pages in, that I had to decide whether or not to  continue reading.  I happen to love particularly good, well-written weird fiction --  as a matter of fact I'm busy reading it right now --  where this sort of thing happens, but definitely NOT in my crime novels.  After two votes to one in favor of sticking with it, I didn't put it down, and I Will Have Vengeance  turned out to be an okay read where good, old-fashioned police work, rather than the supernatural, is the key to solving the crime.   I am saying all of this in the off chance that someone else will have my experience.  ***

 Now 31, Ricciardi  is the Commissario of the Mobile Unit of the Regia Questura di Napoli, somewhat of a loner in the force because he gives most of his co-workers the willies. He wears his sorrow on his sleeve, and although he solves a lot of crimes, other people don't really understand him, with the exception of his friend and colleague Maione.   Now the two of them have a tough case to solve: at the San Carlo Theater, a tenor playing the lead role in Pagliacci has been found dead in his dressing room.  Ricciardi is under a great deal of pressure; the tenor, Vezzi, is a favorite of Il Duce, so the case takes on political undertones:  a solution must be found or heads will roll.  Ricciardi is in no hurry despite the threats of his superior --  he takes his time to uncover the truth.  What he finds is that there are several people who may have had it in for Vezzi -- however great a tenor he may have been, his conduct as a human being was atrocious.

Despite my initial misgivings, the novel turned out to be an okay read that launches an entire series.  The solution to the crime is solidly constructed, step by step, and there's a very nice twist at the end that lends an element of surprise to the solution.  He adds more than just a sense of place in his Naples of 1931; it's a time when political connections are everything to those either on the top tier of society or those who aspire to get ahead but at the same time the author does not shy away from the situation of the poor.  While friends are sitting at a cafe drinking coffee and eating sfogliatelle, there are some people who don't eat for days.  The author spends a great deal of time on character development in this novel, not just in terms of Ricciardi, but other people as well.  Each character has a personality with a backstory, a critical factor in this book but also in terms of an ongoing series.

I have to be honest and say that I wasn't too taken by the supernatural approach and although I realize it's kind of a metaphor made manifest to understand the main character, it seriously could have been left out with no problem. I'm just wondering if de Giovanni is flying on the tails of the paranormal epidemic in publishing, but really, the story would have been good on its own without this device. I get it -- the dead  and their sorrows are a weight on Ricciardi's shoulders, so  he seeks out ways to help alleviate the suffering of the living so that they don't carry it with them to the next world unheard or uncared about; he also feels like someone needs to find some measure of justice for the dead.  Ricciardi's sense of fair play and his ideas of justice are actually elements of the novel that I liked -- rather than caring about keeping his career intact, the Commissario cares about people. 

There are several reviews of I Will Have Vengeance; here are three:  Maxine at Eurocrime, Mrs. P also takes a look at it, and there's a review at Crime Fiction Lover as well. While this book may not be perfect for everyone, I'm happy to add yet another Italian author to my growing international crime fiction library.  It's not a cozy read, nor does it really turn out to be  a paranormal story, despite the frame.  And do not expect an Inspector Montalbano-type read at all if that's as far as your Italian crime fiction experience goes -- not even close.  The book's premise may scare people off, but do give it a try -- you'll be surprised at how tangible the crime and its solution turn out to be.  My thanks to Laura, Maxine and Eric!


  1. Haha, too late to advise you, but I suppose you are happy by now that you read on.

    1. Oh my, you're a riot, Dorte! Yes, I'm happy, and I'll be buying book two when it's translated.

  2. Great review, Nancy. I too had initial misgivings about this book, but I persevered and, like you, found it an "okay" read. For my taste it was slightly too like Agatha Christie (man is killed who turns out to have many enemies who could have done it), and I do not read historical novels out of choice. And I am allergic to the supernatural! All that having been said, I agree that this is a solid book with many good things about it - but I did not like it as much as Camilleri, the first three Carofiglios or an earlier book by the same publisher, "Inspector Cataldo's Criminal Summer" by a man whose name I've forgotten but begins with G, sorry!

    1. I have Inspector Cataldo's Criminal Summer here, and will get to it sometime or other. I did like the little twist at the end; I thought it was someone it wasn't so that was pretty good.

      No one is like Camilleri -- no one.

    2. No one is like Montalbano, i.e., Camilleri. True, true. No one is like the middle-aged smart, sarcastic, capable, witty and always hungry police detective, whose personal life is in shambles, but who has a heart.

      And no one is like Guido Brunetti -- the philosophical Italian commissioner -- either, his family members and his colleagues. No one else has a Paola Brunetti or a Signorina Elettra Zorzi. They're unique to this series as is Brunetti's social conscience.

      However, this book put me off between the supernatural and the fascist regime. I'm still wondering how a cop can be a decent sort under this government. Or does he rebel? Or try to avoid the worst policies? After all, the police are supposed to carry out the dictates of the regime, which did include a lot of repression against many and deporting the Jews and others.

      I'm curious about this, but not yet sure I want to read this. Your review is convincing, but I'm not there yet.

    3. Hi YM
      The politics are pretty well spelled out in the book, and Ricciardi understands what's at stake, but doesn't bow to the pressure. The book doesn't really dwell on this aspect. But I Will Have Vengeance is lighter fare; a far more serious series of crime novels touches on what you're talking about -- the DeLuca trilogy by Carlo Lucarelli (reminding me that I really must dig those out and reread them soon). The supernatural well, I see it as gimmicky and not really necessary, although I'm sure the author would disagree with me. After figuring out the point of them, truthfully, I just kind of ignored Ricciardi's visions the rest of the time. As I said, I love a really good supernatural yarn, but absolutely NOT in my crime fiction!

  3. I think we all have subjects or themes that we don't enjoy but occasionally there is a book or author that can fly under the radar and turn out to be ok after all. I'm not too keen on supernatural themes in my crime fiction either and I always say I hate books about gangsters or drug crime but I have read at least a couple of all of these that I have enjoyed despite my biases.

    Not sure you've convinced me to give this one a go though :)

    1. Hi - you're so right -- I've got my own biases (including the supernatural) in crime fiction, but every now and then I'll start reading something that includes one of them and it turns out to be pretty good. You just never know, I think, until you've experienced it for yourself. And no worries if I haven't convinced you -- a) that's not why I write these little posts and b) everyone's taste is so different!

    2. Somehow this system wrote me down at Yahoo Mail, but it's Kathy D., opining about Montalbano and Brunetti.

      I, too, don't like supernatural themes or touches in crime fiction, although I make an exception with Asa Larsson's Until Thy Wrath Be Past. With other books, including Nordic noir, I avoid it.

      Glad you liked this book. I avoid books about WWII as a rule.

    3. I should have known that was you!!

  4. Yes, between loving the Montalbano and Brunetti books, disliking supernatural themes or books about WWII, as well as having strong opinions (but don't we all?), I guess my taste in crime fiction is pretty transparent.

    I always appreciate mystery reviews written by others. It is a treat to read them even if I'm not going to venture into the particular book. But who knows? Maybe I'll change my mind.

  5. I think the opera skeleton with all it's melodrama and emotional intensity is what underpins this and unites the supernatural and cop elements. I loved the subtle and complex characterization of even minor figures including the priest . Ricciardi takes the figure of the dysfunctional cop that bit further then the alcoholic misogynistic stereotypes too. A real original, and uncomfortable at that. Can't wait for the second translation. Celia Dublin

    1. Hi
      I've already got the second book in my sights as well!


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