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"Damnation is the relentless perception of sorrow, day in and day out. Other's people' sorrow that becomes your own."
on 14 January 2013
(4.5 stars) Fans of Stieg Larsson's Mikael Blomqvist and Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole will find Maurizio De Giovanni's Baron Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, the Neapolitan police hero of the first of four projected mysteries, a completely different kind of character. Commissario Ricciardi is neither as hard-boiled as Blomqvist nor as damaged by alcohol as Hole. In this novel, which is far more operatic in its structure than the Nordic novels, Maurizio De Giovanni creates a main character who feels far more sympathetic than those other two heroes. Now thirty and orphaned, Ricciari has no woman and no family life. He works at least twelve hours a day investigating the most challenging murders in Naples, and he is obviously still suffering from a trauma which occurred when he was a child and led to the first of his "Incidents," moments in which he connects with the souls of the immediately departed, seeing these victims in their last moments and overhearing their final thoughts.
Set in Naples in 1931, the novel takes place during the early rule of Benito Mussolini at a time in which the gap between the wealthy and poor is enormous, and De Giovanni uses these contrasts throughout the novel. Ricciardi and his only friend, Brigadier Raffaela Maione, age fifty, are called to the Royal Theatre of San Carlo to investigate the death of the world's greatest tenor, Arnaldo Vezzi, scheduled to sing the role of the clown in Pagliacci, murdered with a shard of mirror from his dressing room. When Ricciardi finds the body, it softly sings an aria, which, translated, reads: "I will have vengeance, My rage shall know no bounds, And all my love. Shall end in hate." Vengeance, rage, love, and hate, and their corollaries of pride, power, envy, jealousy, are the emotions Ricciardi believes are behind all murders. "They were present in every crime."
Ricciardi hates opera, being "contemptuous of those colorful costumes, those modulated voices, those archaic, cultured words in the mouths of poor devils who were actually starving to death," and he "didn't like the theatrical representation of emotions...[which] never came in just one flavor...there were a thousand facets to [them]." Accordingly, he becomes friendly with a priest, Don Pierino Fava, who provides him with crucial information. Polar opposites in their views of life, the priest and Ricciardi also share their philosophical beliefs. At one point, however, Ricciardi horrifies the priest, exclaiming, "For you damnation is only a word. Believe me when I tell you that damnation is the relentless perception of sorrow...other people's sorrow that becomes your own, that stings like a whip... that infects your blood."
Consummately romantic, with exaggerated but likable characters and heart-breaking situations more akin to opera than to realism, Maurizio De Giovanni's surprising mystery is both dramatic and compassionate, filled with a kind of resonance rare among dark mysteries. Lovers of opera, and I am one, will be intrigued with all the references to love, vengeance, murder, sorrow, pride, envy, and jealousy which seem to motivate most operas - and murders. As is also the case with opera, the characters are sometimes stereotyped, their actions pre-ordained by the traditions of operatic plot. The reader understands that a significant amount of "willing suspension of disbelief" is necessary here, and as Ricciardi's own life, like those of the other main characters, is also its own romantic opera, there is no pretense of realism in this fascinating, over-the-top mystery.