Several years ago Maurizio De Giovanni wrote a giallo featuring a motley collection of police officers based in a Neapolitan questura – the fictional Pizzofalcone. Thus, a series was born. The cases that are dealt with often reflect real events or societal issues but the best part is following the lives of the principal characters. The protagonist is Ispettore Giuseppe Lojacono, a divorced father of a somewhat rebellious teen-ager. His love interest is Laura Piras, the magistrate often assigned to the cases. The other members of the group are the gun-loving Alessandra Di Nardo, a closeted lesbian with a domineering father; Francesco Romano, buff and with serious anger issues; the older Giorgio Pisanelli who is fixated on a series of suicides that he believes are really victims of a serial killer; Ottavia Calabrese the computer whisperer, mother of a disabled child and trapped in an unhappy marriage; and the boorish Marco Aragona who is brash, tacky and ignorant but a surprisingly effective investigator. Then there is the commissario, Gigi Palma, the calm at the center of the storm, who is trying to keep it all together and who has a soft spot for Ottavia. All these characters’ lives, issues and thoughts are explored and it’s interesting and entertaining to follow along as we get to know them better. Earlier this year RAI aired a six-episode series based on the books and a second season is in the works. The TV series is a lot more superficial than the books but the scenes of Naples are great, the casting is mostly good (serious exception, the Laura Piras character) and, all in all, it’s fun to watch.
The final volume of Elena Ferrante’s quartet about the Neapolitan friends Lila and Lenu has just been published in English to great acclaim – both by reviewers and friends. Having slogged through the first and the fourth of the books it’s mystifying to me why they are so popular. It may be a more American phenomenon: an informal survey of Italian friends found only two who liked the books. If you can get through the 450-odd pages of the fourth volume there is no real reason to read the preceding three – all the threads are explained, re-explained and tied up. It’s like watching a soap opera after a few years of not watching and seeing which relationships have broken up and reformed in other configurations. And yes, the themes and emotions may be universal and therefore appealing to some people, and it’s also an overview of Italy’s (and Naples’) history from World War Two to the present, but Lila is simply arrogant and obnoxious and Lenu has to be one of the more irritating women on the planet. Besides which I felt like smacking her for what she puts up with from one of her men. It’s all a grand pasticcio and far too many parole, parole, parole… For those who loved the series, stay tuned – the RAI miniseries is coming soon!
A recent article in The New Yorker about the Italian bookstore SF Vanni was a reminder of this odd little place. To call it a book shop is perhaps somewhat grandiose – in fact they called themselves booksellers. The store had seemingly existed forever and through the 1980s, 90s and very early 2000s this was one of the few places in New York that had (some) Italian books available. It was an anonymous storefront on W 12th St; if you didn’t know it was there it was easy to miss. The store window was not inviting, my memories are of a beige background with a few dusty tomes sitting in it. My interactions were almost always with a civil but not friendly older gentleman. A few times I saw the rumored owner, an old woman who was extremely grumpy and seemed to want to rush you out. In this way it was very reminiscent of a type of smaller store one finds in Italy. It was not a place to go and browse. If you knew what you wanted, had phoned and checked if they had the book in stock, everything went well. With the advent of the internet and the ease and availability of buying books online my visits to Vanni eventually stopped but the article brought back some nostalgia for a different time when you could shrug and shake your head about this peculiar piece of Italy in New York.
Maurizio De Giovanni, an author from Naples, has written many well-received gialli (mystery novels). He is known for a series set in the 1930s featuring Commissario Ricciardi, a diligent investigator cursed with the supernatural ability to see the last moments of the dead. This strange, loner detective and his faithful sidekick Maione are brilliantly depicted as is the fascist era in its menace and limitations. Also playing a vivid role is the city of Naples itself. Fans of noir fiction should like this bleak series – which has been translated into English. De Giovanni has also started a new Neapolitan series, this time, set in the present. The “prequel” Il metodo del coccodrillo (available in English) introduces Ispettore Lojacono, a Sicilian detective transferred to Naples. The following two novels feature Lojacono and his colleagues at the precinct of Pizzofalcone – a precinct which has a last chance to validate itself to the authorities and is staffed by people with “issues.” I like this series better: it’s an Italian police procedural, there are no paranormal phenomena, while grim the plot lines are slightly less dire – there’s even (a little) comedy – and the characters are developing and becoming more three-dimensional. As always, it’s great to be immersed in the wonderful chaos that is Naples.