Translated by Antony Shugaar
Reviewed by Gill Davies
This is the third book in a series of police procedural novels by the successful Italian crime writer Maurizio De Giovanni (also the author of the best-selling Commissario Ricciardi series). This is the first novel by de Giovanni that I have read – and he certainly knows his craft. The series is based around a Naples police division – Pizzofalcone – whose employees are working under the shadow of a previous corruption scandal and the constant threat that the station will be closed down. Previous novels have established the characters and their rather precarious position within the system and this one reprises and develops that narrative line.
It opens with the aftermath of a brutal assault and double murder that is told from the point of view of an unknown killer. A brother and sister, Biagio and Grazia Varricchio, originally from Calabria, were hoping to make new lives in Naples: he is a research student, she has recently begun working as a model, Their bodies are found by a friend – and the motive for their killing is very mysterious. He is a likeable, hard-working and talented scientist; she has recently joined him in the city. Her boyfriend and their father are suspected in the light of previous violent acts, though there is no evidence against either of them. The plot follows the detectives, in classic fashion, as they investigate, interview, examine forensics and so on.
In an unseasonably cold Naples, people shiver in their under-heated apartments, stay off the streets and constantly complain. The weather reflects the squad’s difficulties and as the investigation staggers along, suspense derives in part from the fact that headquarters don’t trust them to solve this important crime. The press and TV are nagging for a result so they have only a few days to find the murderer before the case is taken away from them. And they need a success to keep their jobs. Throughout the narrative there are short sections in italics that signal the points of view of different characters – each of whom may be the murderer. Running parallel with the investigation, they encourage the reader to speculate about who is “speaking” and whether their motivation is plausible or sufficient.
Early on, in Ed McBain style, the author establishes the detectives and their backgrounds, providing a back story for each of them that explains their behaviour and exposes their potential failings. (And for me it was a relief that de Giovanni doesn’t idealise or sentimentalise his cops like McBain does.) Only two remain from the purged “Bastards” who were caught trying to sell drugs they had confiscated during a criminal investigation. The two who survived when their colleagues were sacked, arrested or given early retirement are the experienced Deputy Captain Pisanelli and the computer wizard Ottavia Calabrese. Pisanelli has a strange obsession with cases of suicide, suspecting that foul play is involved in some of them. Ottavia uses work to blot out her unhappy home life and her guilt about neglecting her handicapped son. The detectives brought in to replace the “Bastards” have themselves notable weaknesses or blots on their records which led to their transfers and make their current positions vulnerable. Marco Aragona is an arrogant young cop, from a privileged background, impatient to succeed, confident of his attractiveness and abilities, and incapable of tact or strategic thinking. Alex Di Nardo is sharp and perceptive but held back by her lack of confidence, a product of a repressive family background – particularly her feelings about her “adored, admired, worshipped, hated father”. Lojacono, “the Chinaman”, was exiled from Sicily to Pizzofalcone because of suspected Mafia links. Francesco Romano (“Hulk”), is a big man with a dangerous temper that led to the assault of a suspect. “They all had their crosses to bear , crosses of various sizes … penitence none of them would ever finish paying. Each had her or his own, and perhaps each carried a small portion of each of the others’ burdens.” This is a crime novel in which an unusual amount of attention is paid to the private lives of the detective team, and from this we get an inside view of Neapolitan daily life.
Emerging from the details about individual characters are parallel plots and themes including several oppressive or dangerous fathers (Alex’s who is disappointed that she is not a son and would be horrified to discover she is a lesbian; the father of the victims who is himself a murderer recently released from prison; another father who is accused of abusing his daughter). But it’s also about different kinds of family life. This is interesting because it is an area that has tended to be left out of the crime genre, and especially out of the police procedural with its emphasis on the stages of the investigation, and its cliche that the job simply takes over the cops’ lives. Here instead we have a variety of domestic set-ups shown in realistic detail: brother and sister; gay couples; husbands and wives who no longer love each other but have their reasons to stay together; men who live alone – including Pisanelli, a widower, and Brother Leonardo, a monk; independent women, and so on. De Giovanni takes time to explore their home lives adding a richer dimension to the crime story. He writes, for example, “At dinner you look each other in the eye, you tell each other how the day went”. He then proceeds to uncover the secret interior life of Lojacono’s teenage daughter as she cooks the pasta, or reveals Alex’s repulsion while eating noodle soup with her oppressive parents. So you read this novel for its variety and unusual characterisation, not just for the unfolding mystery, which is satisfyingly revealed at the end.
Maurizio de Giovanni, Cold For the Bastards of Pizzofalcone (Europa Editions, 2019). 978-1609455255, 344pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.