Commissario Ricciardi has visions. He sees and hears the final seconds in the lives of victims of violent deaths. It is both a gift and a curse. It has helped him become one of the most acute and successful homicide detectives in the Naples police force. But all that horror and suffering has hollowed him out emotionally. He drinks and doesn’t sleep. Other than his loyal partner, Brigadier Maione, he has no friends.
Naples, 1931. In a working-class apartment in the Sanità neighborhood, an elderly woman by the name of Carmela Calise has been beaten to death. When Ricciardi and Maione arrive at the scene, they learn that Calise was moonlighting as a fortuneteller and moneylender whose clients were some of the city’s rich and powerful. She predicted their futures in such a way as to manipulate and deceive and made many enemiesthose indebted to her, swayed by her lies, disappointed by her prophesies or destroyed by her machinations. Murder suspects in this atmospheric thriller abound and Commissario Ricciardi, one of the most original and intriguing investigators in contemporary crime fiction, will have his work cut out for him.
“The promise that each life will intersect keeps Ricciardi and Maione’s investigation lively.”Publishers Weekly
“A well-crafted, ultimately moving crime novel set in 1931 Naples . . . This is a solid series with an intriguing detective, and fans will eagerly await the third volume.”Library Journal
About the Author
Maurizio de Giovanni lives and works in Naples. In 2005, he won a writing competition for unpublished authors with a short story set in the thirties about Commissario Ricciardi, which was then turned into the first novel of the series. His books have been successfully translated into French, Spanish and German, and are now available in English.
Read an Excerpt
Though no one could possibly know it, the last rains of winter had fallen that afternoon. The street surface reflected the dim glow of the hanging lamps, which dangled motionless in the now-still air. The only light still shining at that hour of the night came from the barbershop. Inside, there was a man polishing a mirror's brass surround.
Ciro Esposito possessed an iron sense of professional rectitude. He'd learned his trade as a child, sweeping up hair clippings by the ton from the floor of the barbershop that had once belonged to his grandfather, and later to his father. He was treated no better and no worse than the other employees — if anything, with an extra smack in the head or two if he was a second late in proffering the straight razor or a damp towel. But it had done him good. Now, as in the old days, his shop counted among its customers not only those from the Sanità neighborhood, but even those from the far-flung quarter of Capodimonte. He was on excellent terms with them; he understood clearly that men came to the barbershop as an escape from work and wife, and in some cases, from their political party, every bit as much as they did for the haircut and the shave. He had honed that very particular instinct that allows one to chat or to work in silence, and to always have something to say on whatever subject people liked to discuss.
He'd become quite the connoisseur on the topics of soccer, women, money and prices, honor and shame. He avoided politics, which had been such a minefield in recent years. A fruitcart peddler happened to complain about the difficulty he'd been having obtaining supplies; four guys nobody'd ever seen in the neighborhood had demolished his cart, calling him a "defeatist swine." Ciro steered clear of gossip, too. No point in running risks. He was proud in his conviction that his barbershop constituted something of a social club, which is why he was especially worried that last month's incident might cast a shadow over his honorable establishment.
A man had committed suicide, right there in his shop. The man in question was a longtime customer, already a regular back when his father still ran the place. A companionable, jolly fellow, who never tired of complaining about his wife, his children, the money that he never seemed to have enough of. A civil servant; he couldn't remember what branch of government, if he'd ever known at all. Lately, the man had become gloomy and distracted, and he didn't talk the way he'd used to, nor did he laugh at Ciro's renowned jokes; his wife had left him, taking the children with her.
It had happened that, as Ciro was carefully trimming the man's left sideburn with his straight razor, he'd reached up and gripped Ciro's wrist and with a single, determined jerk of the arm, he'd cut his own throat, from ear to ear. It was pure luck that Ciro's shop assistant and two other customers had been there to witness it, or he'd never have been able to persuade the police and the investigating magistrate that it had been a suicide. He'd quickly scrubbed everything clean and the next day he kept the barbershop closed, careful not to breathe a word of what had happened. The dead man was from another part of town. That, at least, was helpful. In a city as superstitious as Naples, it didn't take much to get the wrong kind of reputation.
This is what Ciro Esposito was thinking about on this last night of winter, when he had finished cleaning and was getting ready to fasten and lock the two heavy wooden shutters that protected his shop's front door. He was the only shopkeeper on the Via Salvator Rosa who worked this late. But his workday wasn't over yet. A man, murmuring a greeting under his breath, walked into the shop.
Ciro recognized him; this was one of his oddest customers. Lean, of average height, taciturn. Thirtyish; swarthy, narrow-lipped. Nondescript in every way, except for his green and glassy eyes, and for the fact that he never wore a hat, not even in the dead of winter. What little he knew about him only heightened the discomfort he instinctively felt in his presence. These were not times in which one could afford to displease customers, especially regulars, but this one, in particular, was no walk in the park. The man said good evening, took a seat, and closed his eyes as though asleep, bolt upright in the chair, as if embalmed.
"Buona sera, Dottore," he said, using the classic term of respect for the college-educated. "What'll it be?"
"Just the hair, thanks. Not too short. A quick trim."
"Yessir, I'll have you out of here in just a moment. Make yourself comfortable."
The man leaned back. He looked around quickly and Ciro saw him stiffen in alarm, holding his breath for a brief instant. Was it Ciro's imagination, or had he looked at the chair on the far end of the room, the one belonging to the dead man? The barber decided he was becoming obsessed; he was starting to think that everyone who came in could see the bloodstains he'd so painstakingly scrubbed away.
With a sharp sweep of his hand, the customer brushed aside the stray shock of hair that dangled over his narrow nose. He looked even more ashen by the light of the electric lamps, as if there were something wrong with his liver; his dark complexion verged on the yellowish now. The man heaved a sigh and closed his eyes.
"Dottore, are you all right? May I get you a glass of water?"
"No, no. Just hurry, please."
Ciro started snipping away rapidly, starting with the hair on the back of the man's neck. He couldn't know what the customer, eyes shut tight, was trying so hard not to look at.
The customer could see a man, sitting at the far end of the room, head sunken between his shoulders, hands lying limp on his legs, a black cloth tied around his neck, his eyes fixed on the mirror on the wall. Just above where the cape was tied ran an enormous gash, like a smile scrawled by a child, out of which waves of blood were pumping rhythmically. From behind his clamped eyelids, the customer could sense the corpse slowly turning its head to look at him: the faint snap of the vertebrae in its neck, the damp slithering of the wound's twin lips.
"What I'd give to see how she likes it now, the slut. Now that she's deprived her children of their father."
The customer raised one hand to his temple. Ciro felt increasingly uneasy; there was no one on the streets at that time of night, and that good-for-nothing shop assistant of his had gone home long ago. What else could befall him? The scissors clipped away at an ever-faster pace. The man was holding his eyes shut tight, and the barber could see beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. Perhaps he had a fever.
"We're practically finished, Dotto'. Just two more minutes and we'll have you out of here."
From the far end of the room, the dead man was repeating his lament. In the street outside the wide-open door, silence reigned and springtime awaited. The air itself seemed to be holding its breath.
The customer could hear the scissors chattering away, like frenzied crab claws. He was determined not to listen. What do you expect to see, anyway? You won't see anything ever again. You won't see how that slut likes it, and you won't see anything else.
With a deep sigh, the barber untied the cape from around his customer's neck.
"There you go, Dotto'. You're all done."
After tossing a few coins onto the side table that served as a cash register, the man walked out in search of fresh air. He was having trouble breathing.
The humid evening embraced Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, Commissario of Public Safety in the Mobile Squad of the Regia Questura, or Royal Police Headquarters, of Naples. The man who saw the dead.
Tonino Iodice had returned home from work to his wife, mother, and three children. It had been a terrible day. As he did every evening, he stopped in the atrium of the old apartment building in Via Montecalvario to don his mask, that of the weary but satisfied father and provider, a man whose business was thriving. He knew it was wrong, but it was for their own good. The last thing he wanted to do was to make them share his burden.
It fell to him to lie awake most of the night, staring at the ceiling and listening to the breathing of his sleeping family. Another day without disaster; who knows how much longer we'll be able to hold out. It fell to him to reckon and re-reckon his accounts, always the same sums of money, always the same days of the calendar, waiting with dread for his promissory note to come due, searching for the words he hoped to use to persuade the old woman to give him one last chance.
Tonino used to have a pizza pushcart and, now that he thought back on it, things hadn't been so bad. His mistake was that he hadn't appreciated it, that he'd wanted something better. He woke up every morning at five, made the dough, topped off the oil, set up the pushcart, dressed as warmly as he could if it was cold out, or else prepared to be assailed by the blast of brutal summer sunlight, and headed out into the city. Always the same streets, the same faces, the same customers.
Everyone loved Tonino; he belted out songs at the top of his voice, and it was a fine voice he had. That's what his mother told him and his customers said so, too. He kidded all the lovely ladies, pretending he'd fallen for them head over heels, and they'd laugh and say, All right, all right, Toni', just give me some pizza and get outta here. He was the kind of guy who spread good cheer, with his little pushcart, his whistle, and his fine voice, and the policemen would look the other way, never asking him for his vendor's license or food permit; in fact, now and then they'd come by and he'd offer them a pizza, pe' senza niente, on the house. The months turned into years, and he'd married his pretty Concettina, who was even more cheerful and penniless than he was. Then came Mario, Giuseppe, and Lucietta, the three children in quick succession, as good-looking as their mother, as boisterous and loud as their father, but as ravenously hungry as the two of them put together. Soon the pushcart wasn't bringing in enough to make ends meet.
That was when Tonino made up his mind that, unless he made an effort, unless he reached out for something better, they'd all soon be on the road to hunger. And, even though no one dared to say it outright, everyone was feeling poorer these days. More and more, people were filling their bellies with whatever they could scrape together at home. His customers were dwindling, and with the eight-day pizza plan — eat today and pay next week — many ate on credit, and then dropped out of sight.
That's when it occurred to him that rich people could still afford to go out to eat, and that rich people wanted to sit down to enjoy their meal, to listen to the parking attendant serenade them on his mandolin, to eat, drink, and make merry. The old blacksmith and farrier in Vicolo San Tommaso was about to retire, and he was giving up his place. Two long tables and one small one would fit in the space — maybe he could even fit in a second small table. To start out, he'd make the pizzas and Concetta could wait tables; then, when business picked up, Mario, the eldest, could pitch in.
Having gathered together his mother's savings and borrowed every last lira he could from his other family members and friends, he was still short by a considerable sum. He'd sold his pizza cart, so there was certainly no turning back. And so a friend of his told him there was an old woman in the Sanità quarter who was willing to lend money long term, at a low rate of interest.
He went to see her and he talked her into it. He was good at talking people into things, and better still at persuading old women. He'd gotten the money he needed, and now six months had gone by since his pizzeria had opened for business.
Everyone he knew came to the grand opening — relatives, friends, and passing acquaintances. Not the old woman, though; she had told him she never liked to leave the house. Everyone came and everyone ate their fill, that day and the next. It would bring good luck, and he hadn't charged them a cent. The only problem was that after that the friends and relatives stopped coming around.
Tonino understood that envy wounds more than scoppettate, musketballs. That was what the old people said, and the old people knew what they were talking about. Sure, every now and then someone would pass by and stop in, but the pizzeria wasn't on a main thoroughfare. You had to know about it to get there — and no one seemed to know about it. As the days passed, and as the months hurried along after them, it dawned on Tonino that he'd been a fool: he'd spent too much money setting up and getting ready to open, money that he'd never see again. After three months, the old woman had extended the loan for two more, this time at a higher rate of interest. Then she'd given him one last extension, just one month this time, shouting him out of her apartment. She warned him that this was the final deadline. He would have to pay her what he owed.
Tonino swung open his own front door and Lucietta leapt into his arms, covering him with kisses; she was always the first to hear him come home. He hugged her tight and, with a smile stamped on his face, he strode in to face the rest of his family. He felt his heart tighten in his chest. The promissory note was coming due tomorrow, and for the last time. And he didn't even have half the money he owed.CHAPTER 2
Springtime came to Naples on the fourteenth of April of the year nineteen thirty-one, just a few minutes after two in the morning.
It showed up late and it came the way it always does, with a gust of fresh wind from the south, following a cloudburst. The dogs were the first to detect it, in the courtyards of the Vomero farmhouses and in the alleys down by the waterfront; they lifted their muzzles and sniffed at the air and then, heaving a sigh, went back to sleep.
Its arrival went unremarked upon as the city got its last couple of hours' rest between the dead of night and early morning. There were no celebrations, no regrets. Springtime didn't demand a festive welcome, and required no applause. It occupied the streets and the piazzas. And it stood patiently outside the doors and shuttered windows, waiting.
Rituccia wasn't asleep; she was only pretending. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes he'd just stand there, looking at her, and then turn and go back up to the sleeping loft. Then she'd hear the creaking of the old bed, his body tossing and turning, followed by his sawing snore, a horrible sound that greeted her ears like a thing of beauty because it spared her such horror. Sometimes. Sometimes she was allowed to sleep.
But that night, the springtime had come knocking at the window, stirring his blood, blood curdled by the cheap wine from the tavern at the end of the vicolo, the dark, narrow Neapolitan lane. Pretending to sleep wasn't going to do her any good. As always, when she felt her father's hands on her body, she thought of her mother. And she cursed her for being dead.
Carmela whimpered in her sleep; arthritis was a red-hot iron jolting and crushing her bones. She wasn't cold, the heavy blanket covered her snugly, and the walls were dry. If she'd been awake, rather than deep in a dreamless slumber, the old woman would have looked around proudly at the flowered wallpaper she'd recently had installed. If she'd been awake, she'd have mused that with all those flowers on her walls, she had bought herself a springtime of her own, and with the new season on its way, the flowers would be competing, out on her balcony and there in her apartment.
But Carmela would be denied the springtime. Not the flowers, though; she'd have those. It's just that she wouldn't see them.
Emma turned over on her side, careful not to awaken her husband, who lay sleeping to her left. Experience told her that when the movement of the soft woolen mattress roused him from sleep before he was ready, the selfish old man's thousand-odd afflictions became that much more exaggerated. She scrutinized his profile in the dim light; the glow of the streetlights filtered in through the silk curtains. Had she ever loved him? If she had, she certainly couldn't remember it now.
She smiled in the darkness, her cat eyes illuminated. Not another night, not another springtime without love. Her husband was sleeping with his mouth agape, his hairnet wrapped over his head, and his nightshirt buttoned snugly around his neck. God, how I hate him, she thought to herself.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood Curse"
Copyright © 2008 Fandango Libri.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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Praise for I Will Have Vengeance:
“The combination of an unusual detective, historical setting and Italian opera was impossible to resist.”—Crimetime.co.uk
“Such detailed images in the novel that will haunt me for a long time to come”—Books and Writers
“A colorful novel that imparts a strong sense of time and place...there’s more than a touch of Agatha Christie in this tale”—Curious book fans