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A Death at the Opera House
I Will Have Vengeance - Maurizio De Giovanni
Member Name: fizzywizzy
I Will Have Vengeance - Maurizio De Giovanni
Advantages: Some interesting characters; details of Italian culture
Disadvantages: I hated the 'supernatural' aspect of the main character
The year is 1931, the setting the Italian city of Naples. Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi is working late one evening when he is summoned to the famous San Carlo Opera House where a mysterious death has been reported. There he is faced with the dead body of Maestro Vezzi, one of the country's foremost operatic singers and a particular favourite of Il Duce. The singer is sitting at a table in his dressing room, an arm out-stretched, a tear running down one cheek and a shard of glass from a smashed mirror sticking out of his neck. Vezzi's death could be the result of a tragic accident but for a couple of items in the room that Ricciardi thinks odd.
As the Commissario and his assistant Brigadier Maione start to investigate, it soon becomes clear that the singer was a difficult and unlikeable man with whom many other members of the company had a strained relationship. However, such was the Maestro's talent that his arrogance and violent outbursts were generally tolerated by those who relied on him for their own living.
'I Will Have Vengeance' is a good solid piece of historical crime fiction in the form of a police procedural. Throw in the 'foreign' setting and you can see why the publishers think they're onto a winner.
There is one twist: Ricciardi has a 'gift', the ability to see in his mind the final the seconds of a murder victim's life. It's explained early on that as a child Ricciardi witnessed a murder, the event affecting him in a profound way and the reason why he felt always destined to become a policeman. Although the gift helps Ricciardi in his investigations, it also means he leads a rather sad and lonely life. I'm not a fan of the supernatural in fiction so when this aspect of Ricciardi's persona was introduced at the outset, I was put immediately on my guard. Personally I would have liked the character much better without the visions but as it stands the idea is executed rather well with Ricciardi quietly accepting his lot rather than the outcome of the story being dependent on it. The focus of the investigation is primarily based on the evidence collected and not Ricciardi's unusual insight anyway so the bounds of credibility don't get stretched too far.
We can add Ricciardi to the ranks of policemen and detectives for whom loneliness and isolation, as well as a mistrust of his superiors, are common characteristics. He exists for his job, the only person with whom he has a real relationship with outside the Questura is his elderly tata Rosa; then there's Enrica, a young woman who lives in the apartment opposite his - he only knows her from what he sees peering into her apartment from his own. I loved the utter simplicity of Ricciardi's life in spite of his rather grand origins. In spite of the attempts of Rosa to make her beloved Luigi enjoy his food the policeman's diet consists on alternate days of pizza and sfogliattella.
So simple is the Commissario's life that he even has to have the world of opera - that great passion of Italy (and if you read Tobias Jones's 'The Dark Heart of Italy' you might believe that opera runs through the veins of all Italians) - explained to him in order to determine where he should focus the investigation. De Giovanni paints a fascinating picture of the operatic world and cleverly manages just to weave just the right level of coincidence between the story and the opera that Vezzi was appearing in.
Judging by the amount of effort De Giovanni invests in developing the main characters it's clear that this is just the first of a series to feature Commissario Ricciardi. As a stand alone novel this still works very well but in setting up a meaty conflict between Ricciardi and his superior, the odious Vice-Questore Angelo Garzo, we have a situation that embodies the political situation of the era. When Garzo tries to suggest that certain witnesses - people with certain 'roles' - need not be required to give a statement regarding their whereabouts at the time of the murder, the Commissario responds flatly 'My role is to find a murderer'. We learn of Garzo that he achieved his position 'above all by the skillful exploitation of his subordinates capacities'.
'I Will Have Vengeance' is a colourful novel that imparts a strong sense of time and place. There are plenty of details of Italian culture woven into the story and rather than interrupt the flow of the story to set the scene, an editor's note provides a useful insight. The shadow of the fascist regime looms over the story but doesn't dominate and we learn more about the effects of the regime from witnessing the huge chasm between the social classes than from overt references to Mussolini.
There's more than a touch of Agatha Christie in this tale with a closed murder scene and a fairly lengthy list of people who might have a motive to kill Vezzi. However, the story goes deeper to look more closely at Vezzi himself and why he was a person who turned people against him. There's a bit of a twist in the investigation but I did find the murder plot a little uninspiring, enjoying the setting and characterisation a great deal more.To achieve all this is such a short novel is to De Giovanni's credit.
This is a tantalising introduction and the setting up of the characters offers several interesting possibilities for future installments.Despite my initial doubts about how much I'd enjoy this novel, I have to concede that I enjoyed it a great deal and I do hope that Hersilia Press decide to commission the translation of more from the series.
Published by Hersilia Press, February 2012
With thanks to publisher for providing a review copy. This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Summary: Unusual crime fiction set in 1930s Naples