As Naples prepares for its holiday celebrations, behind the facade of order and happiness imposed by the fascist regime, lurks terrible poverty and blinding desperation. In a luxurious apartment on the Mergellina beach the bodies of a fascist militia officer and his wife have been found. The woman has had her throat cut while the man has been stabbed over sixty times. Seemingly, the hands of two separate killers have been at work. A statuette of San Giuseppe, patron saint of workers, lies in pieces on the floor. At the scene of the crime, Ricciardi, who has the dubious gift of being able to see and hear the last seconds in the lives of those who have suffered a violent death, listens to the enigmatic last words of the couple. Accompanied by his faithful partner Brigadier Raffaele Maione, and once more troubled by two women who compete for his attentions, the Commissario will have to trace a wide and frenetic arc through the streets of Naples in order to uncover the truth.
“The refreshing lack of cynicism of de Giovanni’s two lead detectives, Brigadier Raffaele Maione and Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, distinguishes the quietly enjoyable fifth Commissario Ricciardi mystery set in 1930s Naples. . . . Engaging characters and melancholy atmosphere.” —Publishers Weekly
“One of the most entrancing series of crime novels.” —Shots Magazine
“An absolutely terrific series.” —Open Letters Monthly
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Brigadier Raffaele Maione, trudging through the cold, wondered for the thousandth time who could possibly feel like committing a murder just a week before Christmas.
Not that anyone should ever feel like killing another person, to be clear: murder is madness, the worst thing a human being can do. Still, Maione thought to himself, it was somehow even worse at this time of year, when the children were so eager and excited that they couldn't sleep, now that people were greeting one another on the street, wreathed in smiles, trying to decide what to make for the Christmas Eve banquet. Now that the shops were decked out for the holidays, now that the churches were all vying to display the most spectacular manger scene, now that every conversation began and ended with best wishes for the season. Who could want to commit murder at a time like this?
And yet someone had done it. So here I am — the brigadier said to himself — trudging toward Mergellina, in this icy wind that cuts into my bones, running the risk of spending this Christmas in bed with a raging fever.
Behind him walked the uniformed patrolmen Camarda and Cesarano, their faces buried in the lapels of their overcoats, caps pulled down to cover their reddened ears. The two of them weren't even ribbing each other the way they almost invariably did, clearly both thinking the same thing as the brigadier. The mobile squad, they call us, thought Maione. Mobile on our feet, mobile in our boots. Two automobiles assigned to police headquarters, and one of them's always in the repair shop, while the other one's assigned to His Honor the Chief of Police for official business. And here we are, raising blisters on our feet, hustling back and forth from one end of the city to the other.
A few steps ahead of him he saw Commissario Ricciardi, his hair tossing in the wind. Hatless as always. How the devil the man managed not to come down with some illness, God only knew.
Above the commissario's ear he could see a purplish cut, a shaven area, and a few stitches. Maione remembered the car crash his superior officer had been involved in on the Day of the Dead, nearly two months earlier, and a shiver ran down his spine as he reflected on what a miracle it was that he had survived. The woman who was driving the car that had skidded off the road had been killed on impact, after the car tumbled fifty feet down, and the commissario had emerged with little more than a scratch.
Walking along behind the commissario through the narrow lanes of the seaside neighborhood of Chiaia, Maione remembered when the man had awakened, in the hospital: the brigadier was sitting by his bedside, determined to watch over him all night long, when Ricciardi had suddenly opened his eyes.
His gaze was alert: he was completely conscious, and those unsettling, transparent green eyes, in which you could discern neither his thoughts nor his state of mind, were focused on Maione. Then, in a low, worried voice: "Do you see me? Do you see me, Maione? Are you able to see me?" "Of course I can see you, Commissa'," Maione had replied. "I'm right here, sitting next to you, why on earth wouldn't I be able to see you?"
The commissario had sighed. Then he had settled back on his pillow and fallen asleep again.
Maione saw him again at police headquarters seven days later, his wound bandaged inexpertly. Not that he'd really expected to see Ricciardi stay in bed for the month the doctor had recommended. And now the commissario was striding along ahead of him, heading for Mergellina, where the call had come from earlier that morning. Maione wondered what thoughts were going through that mind of his.
Ricciardi was thinking about the dead.
He was thinking that, Christmas or no Christmas, holiday season or no holiday season, goodwill or no goodwill, there was always someone dying, and it fell to him to witness the blood and the devastation.
When the car had skidded into thin air, he thought that he was about to die, and a part of his soul had almost wished for it: it would mean an end to the dark suffering that had always tormented him. Then he'd be nothing more than a fading image on a rock spur, condemned to utter one mute thought over and over into the wind, heard by no one, unless some other unfortunate man burdened by the same curse happened to be looking out at the sea from Posillipo.
But instead here I am, he mused. Once again heading out into the breach, as if nothing had happened. As if I hadn't died just a little more, the way I do every time I discover just how black a human soul can be. As if I were still alive.
Mergellina was changing: from a fishing village set off from the center of town, it was now primed to become an expensive neighborhood. New apartment buildings, shops here and there, wet nurses and governesses, doormen in livery, but it was a quarter still swathed in the look and the smell of the ways of old, with the odor of fish and stale cabbage, and women wrapped in black shawls mending torn fishnets.
As a rule, as soon as the platoon of policemen was spotted coming in the distance, a small gang of scugnizzi rushed toward them shouting. These street urchins were at once the sentinels and the Greek chorus accompanying every event, ready to cluster around to celebrate or to protest, to obtain some slight advantage from every situation, the beneficiaries of a tossed coin or a mouthful of food; shoeless, tattered, their skin dark and callused, gap-toothed mouths open in a soundless, perennial scream. The scugnizzi stepped aside for Ricciardi without so much as a wave from him, while Maione and the two patrolmen did their best to swat them away like so many buzzing pests. But they did serve one purpose: they made it easy to find, without having to remember the address, the place where the crime they'd been summoned to investigate had taken place. It was a recently built, somewhat out-of-the-way apartment building; a small knot of rubberneckers were milling around in front of the street door, hiding the entrance from view. There was a strange silence. The wind coming off the salt water was sharp and chilly, but no one seemed disposed to budge from the vantage point they'd conquered.
As they got closer, a man broke away from the crowd — red- faced, dressed in sloppily buttoned footman's livery, a hat askew on his head. He approached Maione and took him by the arm.
"Brigadie', you're finally here. It's a bloodbath, just a bloodbath! You have no idea! I can't imagine, none of us can imagine who it could have been. They were a distinguished family, such a distinguished family! And now of all times, just as Christmas is approaching, I don't understand, I just don't understand ..."
Assailed by the smell of rancid wine wafting out of the man's mouth and irritated by his tone, Maione shoved him away.
"Calm down, calm down. I'm not following a word you're saying. Step back, catch your breath, and tell me who you are and what you're talking about."
The man, nonplussed, took a step back and a deep breath.
"You're quite right, Brigadie', forgive me. It's just that the whole thing has me so upset. My name is Ferro, Beniamino Ferro, at your service, I'm the doorman of this building."
The crowd had shifted its attention from the front door of the apartment building to the conversation between Maione and the doorman. Ricciardi walked over to the two men.
"I'm Commissario Ricciardi from the mobile squad, and this is Brigadier Maione. Tell me what happened."
Ferro blinked rapidly, made uneasy by Ricciardi's gaze and the low voice with which he'd spoken. He grew cautious and whispered:
"I don't know what happened, Commissa'. That is, I know, I saw and ... Madonna mia, there was so much blood ... but I don't know how it happened, I mean. That is, I didn't have anything to do with it, let me make that clear. I went upstairs, when the zampognaro called for me, and I went to see, but I only looked from outside the door — I know that you're not supposed to touch anything." He'd referred to a zampognaro, a traditional Christmas bagpiper.
Ricciardi listened patiently, then said:
"What did you see from outside the door? What is it you're not supposed to touch?"
"I know, because I used to work at a construction site up in Vomero and one time a buddy of mine fell off a balcony, and they told us not to touch anything until they showed up ... until you all showed up, in other words. The dead, Commissa'. Dead people, lying on the ground — that's what you're not supposed to touch."
The man's words fell into the silence like a rock into a deep well. The people at the front of the crowd that had surrounded the interview took a step back. A woman raised her hand to her mouth and her eyes grew round.
"Dead people, did you say? What dead people?"
Now Ferro seemed to have lost all interest in talking. He stared back at Ricciardi, wide-eyed, silently muttering those last words over and over again, the dead, the dead, as if he had only now just understood their meaning.
"Dead. They're dead. The signora, and the captain, too. They're dead."
He repeated the phrase several times, in a low voice, glancing around. The man's eyes glittered with the absolute terror and bewilderment that were washing over him; the rubberneckers looked away. From the nearby waterfront came the sound of a wave breaking over the rocks.
Ricciardi still hadn't taken his hands out of his overcoat pockets. The wind was tousling the hair that hung down over his forehead, his eyes gazed, almost unblinking. He was trying to piece out how much of the doorman's agitation was real and how much of it might be camouflaging a lie.
"What makes you say that this signora and this captain might be dead? Did you see them? Where are they?"
Ferro seemed to snap out of it.
"Forgive me, Commissa' ... It's just that I still hadn't fully realized. I saw ... I saw the signora, through the open door. I didn't go in; I called out for the captain, I called for him over and over but there was no reply. I thought ... I just thought that if he wasn't answering, then that must mean that he was dead, too."
"And you're sure that he's home? He couldn't have gone out?"
"No, no ... he's home. I always see him leave, for the port, in the afternoon. But at this time of day he's always at home."
"A minute ago, you said that the zampognaro called for you. What do you mean by that?"
"The two zampognari had gone upstairs to play the novena, for the third day. They came back down right away; one wasn't talking and he's still not talking even now. He's over there, you can see him, sitting in that chair, so pale he looks like a dead man himself. The other one, who's older, he came to get me, and he said, 'Signor Doorman, hurry upstairs, something awful has happened.' I would have believed anything, except that I'd go upstairs and find ... what I found."
Ricciardi nodded, lost in thought. Then he said:
"All right then. Let's go take a look. Ferro, you can walk the Brigadier and me upstairs. Cesarano, you keep an eye on the Two zampognari and don't move from there; we'll talk to them afterward. And you, Camarda, I want you to stand guard at the front entrance. I don't want to see anyone go into the building, not even the people who live here, until I say so. Let's go."CHAPTER 2
Ferro walked ahead of Ricciardi and Maione, leading the way into the building. The lobby was spacious and clean, reasonably warm and well lit; it was clear that the building aspired to a certain tone, as did many in this new neighborhood growing at the foot of the hill. Ricciardi addressed the man.
"How many people live in this building?"
"There are three families, Commissa'. The Garofalos, the ones ... well, where I'm taking you now, the Marras, a childless couple who are out at this time of day because they both work, and the accountant Finelli on the top floor, a widower with five children who all go to their grandmother's, not far from here, when he's at the bank where he works."
Maione puffed as he heaved his 265 pounds up the stairs:
"So in other words, at this time of day there's no one else in the building but the Garofalos, is that it? And they don't have any children?"
"A little girl, Brigadie'. Her name is Benedetta and she's at school with her aunt, who's a nun. The aunt comes to get her every morning. That's lucky: if not, then she, too ..."
He stopped on the last step, just before the third-floor landing, without turning the corner, his eyes fixed on the large window overlooking the courtyard.
"You'll have to forgive me: I just can't do it. I just can't see all that blood again."
Ricciardi and Maione walked past him. In the half light, they were able to make out two doors, one closed and the other one left ajar, from which there came a shaft of a white light. They could glimpse a section of wall, flowered wallpaper, half a hanging mirror, a console table with a vase, and a framed photograph. They stopped, then Maione, according to a well-established routine, turned away, facing the stairs. The first encounter with the crime scene was always and exclusively the commissario's prerogative.
Ricciardi took a step forward, opening the door to the apartment a crack more. The light came from inside, the chilly December afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows in the other rooms. At first he saw nothing; then he realized that what he had at first taken for a decorative floral pattern on the wallpaper was actually an array of blood spatters. He leaned forward, taking care as to where he put his feet. On the floor there was a broad dark stain, in the middle of which was the head of a woman whose body lay behind the door.
The commissario understood immediately that all the blood he saw, the blood that had terrified the doorman and spattered and stained the carpet and the wallpaper, had sprayed from the woman's throat when it had been sliced open by a single blow from a razor-sharp blade. He observed the expression on her face, the half-closed eyes, the wide-open mouth. In the puddle of blood, the print of the toe of a heavy boot: someone had come in, but they hadn't ventured any further, probably the zampognaro or even the doorman himself.
He took a step forward, being careful not to step on the pool of blood, and half-closed the door behind him. He looked around: from the front hall, spacious and elegantly furnished, he could see a sitting room with two armchairs and a low table. He again looked at the corpse, then followed the trajectory of its dull gaze.
In the opposite corner, some six feet from the woman's dead body, standing in the dying light of the day, the same woman was smiling in his direction, eyes downcast as she welcomed him to her home with the pleasure of a perfect hostess. She was murmuring: Hat and gloves? Her hand was slightly extended, as if to take her visitor's articles of outerwear and show him in properly, with grace and pleasure. Hat and gloves?
Under the smile, from the gaping wound in the throat, sliced open from one ear to the other, blood pumped out in small black waves, dripping unremittingly onto the flowered dress, muddying the woman's chest horribly. Hat and gloves? she kept saying. Ricciardi heaved a sigh.
He spotted a few black drops far from the corpse, on the floor; they didn't match up with the direction of the spatters that had hit the wall. Someone had walked away, probably unconcerned about the fact that the weapon used to cut the woman's throat was still dripping with her blood. He started following the tracks, passing through the sitting room and ending up in the bedroom.
The sight that greeted him there was overwhelming. The bed was drenched with blood, a horrifying amount of it: the sheets had turned black, the liquid had oozed onto the bedside rug, the light-colored wood headboard was spattered. At the foot of the bed, two long streaks. The murderer had cleaned the blade before leaving the scene.
At the center of the bed, and of the broad patch of his own blood, lay a man's corpse. His head was just starting to go bald and he had a drooping salt-and-pepper mustache. He might have been forty years old. The mouth gaped open as if trying to take in one last gulp of air; the hands were clenched in fists at his sides. Ricciardi understood, from the quantity of blood and the absence of visible wounds, that the man had been covered up as he lay dying and that he'd gone on bleeding for a good long while.
The commissario glimpsed the image of the man on the bed, sitting beside his corpse and bleeding from a countless array of knife wounds. He was reminded of a painting of Saint Sebastian that hung in one of the classrooms of the high school he'd attended; he remembered how often, during the boring sermons he'd been forced to sit through, he'd counted the arrows piercing the martyr's body, twenty-three to be exact. Judging by the sight of him, Ricciardi felt pretty sure that the man on the bed had rung up a higher total than the Christian martyr.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "By My Hand"
Copyright © 2011 Giulio Einaudi Editore SpA, Torino.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“In Ricciardi, De Giovanni has created one of the most interesting and well-drawn detectives in fiction, and this book is a real treat that should not be missed by crime lovers.”—The Daily Beast (Weekly “Hot Read”)
“In I Will Have Vengeance The combination of an unusual detective, historical setting and Italian opera was impossible to resist.”—Crimetime.co.uk
“A wonderfully suspenseful novel in which de Giovanni restores life to the cliché of the world-weary detective”—Kirkus Starred Review
“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