“Listen to me: a crocodile selects a location – in the swamps, in the muddy waters of the savannah – and it takes time making its choice…The place where it knows its prey will go, sooner or later, for water. And then it positions itself under the surface of the water, every so often breaking the surface with its nostrils so it can breathe. And it waits. It waits.”
In just the past seven months, Europa Editions has released three newly translated novels by Neapolitan author Maurizio de Giovanni, an extraordinary, almost unheard of act of faith by the publisher for an author who until this past December was completely unknown in the United States. And there is yet a fourth novel* being planned for release in the US in November, 2013. The publisher’s confidence in de Giovanni’s ability to attract an audience is well deserved, and his novels have met with critical acclaim. Original and intensely realized, with occasional, much-welcomed flashes of humor, they also contain quirky, well-drawn characters who elicit the reader’s emotions. The vividly drawn settings add atmosphere and depth to the dark, noir plots. De Giovanni’s first two novels, I Will Have Vengeance (Europa, December, 2012), and Blood Curse (Europa, May 2013), both take place in Naples in the early 1930’s during the rise of Benito Mussolini, and this fraught atmosphere adds to the color of these novels. In both novels, which benefit from being read in order, the main character, Commissario Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, like many noir “heroes,” is lonely and hard-working, unafraid to challenge the police establishment. Ricciardi also has a unique talent, however, and it is this which gives these two novels unusual twists: If Ricciardi visits the scene of a murder soon after the death of the victim, he can hear the victim’s final thoughts, often clues as to what happened to him.
The Crocodile , his third novel to be published in English, is dedicated to “Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, and the souls in darkness,” but it is not part of the Ricciardi series, and frankly, I wondered how the author would ever succeed in creating a new “hero” to rival Ricciardi, one of the most intriguing and well-imagined “heroes” in noir fiction. I wondered, too, if a setting in contemporary Naples could possibly be as atmospheric as that of Naples in the 1930s. Without even a backward glance, however, de Giovanni has created yet another brilliantly realized protagonist in Inspector Giuseppe Lojacono – equally lonely, equally wounded by life, equally sympathetic, and at least as intriguing as Ricciardi, though from a very different background. Lojacono, from Sicily, is fully familiar with the workings of organized crime there, and he has recently become a victim of its machinations: A low level crook in Sicily turned state’s witness and identified the innocent Lojacono as an informant for organized crime. Instantly Lojacono became a pariah in the police department. With no evidence against him, however, there could be no trial. Sicily shipped him off the island to Naples, which took him in but did not want him. For the past ten months Lojacono has been playing card games on the computer in Naples, prohibited from working on cases there because of his supposed guilt as an informant.
Everything changes when the first of several murders occurs, and Lojacono, alone among the department, believes that the killer is operating on his own and is not part of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. While the rest of the department is looking for the usual connections to organized crime, Lojacono begins to look elsewhere for the mysterious killer. The killer himself, meanwhile, is revealing his inner thoughts to the reader through his emotional messages to an invalid whom he loves. He travels through Naples, going anywhere he wants to go, but remains as invisible as a crocodile lurking beneath the surface of the water. A man who prepared for ten years for his opportunity to wreak vengeance on a world that he feels has betrayed him, this killer has no fear of apprehension, either before or immediately after the planned killing. “I figured it out,” he says,” if you take care, if you walk with your head down, shuffling your feet, if you act like you’re old and tired, then people look the other way…you become invisible.”
The man’s first murder, the shooting death of a teenage boy who has just returned home on his motor scooter, is shocking in its unexpected and cold-blooded violence. Immediately afterward, the killer saunters off, unnoticed by anyone. The young teen was the much-loved son of a single mother, whose devastation is so complete that “her face was collapsing into a silent scream… the very picture…of a one-way journey into the abyss.” Though the boy has sold a handful of bags of drugs to other teenagers, he is not really a bad kid, just a teenager “doing a few favors” for someone else, though initially investigators regard this drug connection as proof of Camorra involvement in his death.
A new head of investigation, Dottoressa Laura Piras, from Cagliari, Sardinia, shares Lojacono’s wider view of the crime, and before long, Lojacono is providing information to her. Subsequent murders include those of a fourteen-year-old girl, the daughter of a wealthy woman from the upscale Posillipo section of Naples; and later, a student whose father has been devoted to helping his son achieve success. With three deaths so close to the beginning of the novel, the reader feels drained by the horrors. All are young people whom any parent would be proud of, and when the killer lets the reader know that his next victim will be the youngest of all, the novel becomes as dark as any noir novel can ever get. The biggest question is what motivates all these murders.
The Crocodile broadens its scope as it broadens its characters, describing them and showing them in separate, seemingly unconnected chapters in the beginning, presenting their points of view, and providing unusually full characterizations for a noir novel. The teenage characters act like real teenagers, the adult characters reveal their often troubled backgrounds and histories, and the interminable quarrels within the department (and their resentment of Lojacono) show male attitudes toward outsiders and female officers. The author succeeds in making this a character novel at the same time that it is a novel of dark and violent crime. Ultimately, readers who are already familiar with Maurizio de Giovanni’s work will be thrilled to see the author branching out and taking new chances, even as they thrill with the information that the fourth book of the year will be the third installment of the unforgettable Commissario Ricciardi series.
*The fourth de Giovanni novel, Everyone in Their Place, was reviewed on this site in November, 2013, with another in the Commissario Ricciardi series, The Day of the Dead, due in April, 2014. See link below.
ALSO by Maurizio de Giovanni: Inspector Ricciardi series: I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE (#1), BLOOD CURSE (#2), EVERYONE IN THEIR PLACE (#3), DAY OF THE DEAD (#4), BY MY HAND (#5), VIPER (#6), THE BOTTOM OF YOUR HEART (#7)
Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.napolimagazine.com.cn
“Early Morning on Posillipo Beach,” a photograph by BJ Alberts, appears on her website http://www.napoliunplugged.com and appears here with her permission.
The photograph of Scala dei Turchi,” the Turkish Steps in Agrigento, Sicily, is from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/
Italian police: http://www.alternet.org
The map of Italy and Sicily may be found on http://www.worldatlas.com