When I first met Commissario Ricciardi I could only think, man . . . what a character. And when I say character, I mean that both literally and figuratively. As a character in a novel and a "character" (he being a quite distinct individual). Can I endure a whole mystery about such a morose and curmudgeonly individual? And then the story is about a murder that takes place in an opera house. And while I love going to the opera, why did it sound sort of a stuffy locale to set a murder? Okay. Proven wrong am I on both counts. And just for the record, and I have more than a few of these, Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, is now my official newest fictional crush. I Will Have Justice: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi (Il senso del dolore translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel--my copy was first published by Hersilia Press by the way, but Europa Editions now publishes his books in the US) is the first of seven (at least there are seven that have been translated into English) mysteries featuring the Commissario. Maybe there are more published in Italy and are yet to be translated? One can only hope.
So, what should I tell you about first? The mystery or should I tell you about Commissario Ricciardi and his milieu? Okay, setting first. Atmosphere and sense of time and place are high on my list of things I want from a good crime novel, and this one has it all. And it is even the first book of a series, which are often a little clunky coming out of the starting gate (and this one is not). It's Italy 1931, and Luigi Ricciardi was born the same year as this new century dawned. He is the Commissario of Police with the Mobile Unit of the Regia Questura di Napoli. Doesn't that just roll right off the tongue. Forgive me if I spice up my post(s) about these mysteries with lots of Italian words if I can possibly slip them in as I love the way Italian sounds (and it is close enough to Spanish that I can work out the meaning of some words and phrases). Il Duce and his Fascists are in power and the murder that takes place in this story has reached those upper echelons of society and caught his eye. While his forbidding presence is there, he mostly only hovers in the background.
Can I share something, well reveal it more like, about the Commissario? It is an unusual plot device which comes in handy in numerous ways. It is a small spoiler, but if you read the book it will be revealed in the very first chapter in any case. It regards The Incident. The Incident will overshadow everything. It makes the Commissario the man he is and it sets him apart from his colleagues. They know there is something not quite right about him. And being the superstitious place that Naples is, it would not be surprising that if he walks by, people might make the symbol against him to ward off the evil eye.
"The dead child was standing motionless at the intersection between Santa Teresa and the museum. He was watching two boys who were sitting on the ground, playing Giro d'Italia with marbles. As he watched them, he kept saying, 'Can I go down? Can I go down?'"
"The man without a hat knew the dead child was there even before he saw him . . ."
Luigi Ricciardi was born in Salerno and grew up in Fortino, the only son of Baron Ricciardi di Malomonte. His father died when he was quite young and his mother when he was a teenager studying at a Jesuit College. When he was just a boy, he saw something that will forever haunt him. Such a fright, everyone put it down to an excessive imagination. But the Commissario sees dead people. That first murder when he was so very young was The Incident that will never let him know peace of mind or spirit. Save for a very few dedicated friends, Commissario Ricciardi is a loner who dedicates himself to his job, to helping those who leave this world in a fit of violence to find justice. His tata Rosa, now seventy but still the loyal family retainer, looks after him tirelessly and continually laments his decision to be alone. And then there is the Brigadier. Raffaele Maione is his second in command and will not allow a single word against the Commissario so deep is his loyalty and dedication to the younger man. His colleagues are aware of his uncanny knack of speedily solving crimes. There is a certain respect but also a certain fear. Maione suspects there is some deep sadness in the Commissario's history that has made him the way he is.
Slender and of medium height and build, Commissario Ricciardi has unsettling green eyes and a dark complexion with black hair slicked back with Brilliantine. "His small, almost feminine hands were restless, always moving. He kept them in his pocket, aware that they betrayed his emotion, his tension."
"His subordinates didn't understand his moroseness, his silences: never a smile, never a superfluous comment. His methods were unconventional. He did not follow procedures, but in the end he was always right. Those who were more superstitious--and in that city there were many like that--sensed something unnatural in Ricciardi's solutions, as if his investigations proceeded backwards as if he went over the events in reverse."
It is the murder of Italy's most famous tenor, Maestro Vezzi, that brings the Commissario to Naples' famed San Carlo Opera House. If there is an equivalent term for men, Vezzi is a "diva" extraordinaire. Talented and aware of his talent, he takes what he wants and makes demands that must be filled at his momentary whims without a thought to anyone else. It's a curious and bloody murder, made all the more strange by finding a scarf and coat on the sofa of the dressing room that should be covered in blood yet is clean and dry. And then the mystery of how the murder got into the room and out of it without having been seen by a single soul. Even Il Duce has taken notice and the pressure is on Ricciardi's superior to catch the murderer quickly, and so therefore the pressure is on Ricciardi. He can see the tenor at his last moment, a tear falling from his eye yet he cannot see the moment of death.
Such a heavy burden Commissario Ricciardi must carry. Seeing those last moments of pain and anguish. He carries them with him in his mind. The only relief he gets comes in the moments after his nightly meal when he looks out his window and into the window of the neighboring building where he catches sight of Enrica. And it is this moment that he waits for that gives him a little peace and distraction. It is what made him so very crushworthy for me.
I've already started reading the second book, Blood Curse: The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi, and it is better than the first! I will tell you more about Enrica when I finish it and post again. Now that I have the preliminaries over about the Commissario we can proceed on with the mysteries and filling in all the little details which makes these books so engaging. These are definitely top ten reads sorts of books. And a curious side note--it's interesting that the title in Italian is something along the lines of a sense of pain, which is a theme that runs through the book. I might just read through the whole set of Commissario Ricciardi books this year!