If he hadn’t become a writer, Maurizio De Giovanni might still be working in a bank. If he hadn’t opted for crime fiction, he would have written about football and might have become the Italian Nick Hornby.
You get to know that within the first two minutes of meeting the affable Signor De Giovanni.
I had made the mistake of trying to way-lay him at the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square where he was to talk to a sell-out audience on Giallo or ‘Yellow’ fiction – yellow being the traditional colour used on the covers of crime fiction in Italian publishing. I say ‘mistake’ in that I had hoped for a quiet half-hour before his scheduled talk to meet the writer whose work I have only recently discovered but who has become a major player on the Italian crime-writing scene since he stumbled – or was pushed – into it less than ten years ago.
That our meeting – which took place in a secluded side room, part library, part cloakroom – was interrupted roughly every ninety seconds by visitors to the Institute anxious to meet him (including, it seemed, most of the London-based Italian diplomatic corps), was an indication of how much a celebrity Maurizio has become in his homeland.
When we first meet, in an otherwise empty corridor, he insists that his English is worse than my Italian (patently untrue) and that we should wait for the translator who has been delayed en route. Eventually two translators and a London-based Italian journalist are involved and our presence in the side roomis soon discovered by De Giovanni fans determined to meet or at least get sight of the man they have come to listen to that night.
Maurizio himself seems totally unfazed by the interruptions, the bustle and the simultaneous translations. In fact he seems quite adept at keeping several plates spinning at the same time, with patience and with charm, but the situation does not lend itself in-depth revelations, so I press ahead with the basics.
Maurizio De Giovanni was born in Naples in 1958. The date is not that significant, but the place is - as he soon makes clear.
“I used to be a banker,” he says and then immediately corrects himself (proving that his English is streets ahead of my Italian). “No not a banker; I was someone who worked in a bank.”
It was not a natural vocation he admits, and he permanently had his nose in a book. In fact he got such a reputation among his co-workers for being a bookworm that in 2005 they entered him, without his knowledge, in a short story competition for emerging crime writers sponsored by Porsche Italy. The story he produced, The Living and the Dead, featuring detective Commissario Ricciardi and set in Naples in the 1930’s Fascist Italy, went on to win. It was to become the basis for his first novel I Will Have Vengeance which is sub-titled (in English) as The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi.
[Most of De Giovanni’s books seem to have multiple titles due to different editions, different translations and, even in English, different publishers, but his core series is the ‘seasonal’ one: the winter, springtime, summer, Christmas and so on ‘of Commissario Ricciardi.]
If (for a curious foreign reader of crime novels) the setting of Naples under Mussolini was not an interesting enough premise, De Giovanni provides a delicious twist in that the aristocratic, lovesick and very humane Commissario Ricciardi has the unique, mostly unwelcomed, gift of being able to see and hear the ghosts of those recently subjected to a violent death. You might think this is a handy skill for a policeman, but it is a curse rather than a blessing for poor Ricciardi more often than not.
If I have made the set-up of the Ricciardi books sound like a first draft of The Sixth Sense where characters “see dead people”, then I do them an injustice. Ricciardi is a very sympathetic character - far more than a psychic freak – and is beautifully balanced by his side-kick, the solid, big-hearted Brigadier Raffaele Maione.
When I suggest to Maurizio that Ricciardi and Maione are a fantastic double act (or doppia atto – I looked it up beforehand), he is at first suspicious. Do I mean like Laurel and Hardy? Whilst I would take that as a compliment (but then I write comic crime as a buffone), Maurizio clearly did not and I qualified my statement by proposing that the ethereal Ricciardi could be the soul of the story whereas the more earthy Maione was the heart, or possibly the stomach.
Maurizio understands what I am getting at, but explains that his characters are the eyes and the ears of observers of the real heart of his stories – which is the city of Naples itself. De Giovanni’s parents were born in Naples in the 1930s and stories from their childhood have clearly influenced him. He is passionate when it comes to describing the pre-war Naples of the Thirties and the city today. World War II was a huge breakpoint, physically and morally, for the city.
He maintains that before the war, the community of Naples was unofficially governed by an honour code, the concept of dishonour and disgrace being the ultimate sanction. After the war (and the spread of the Mafia’s influence?) sudden and violent death rather than dishonour became the normal social sanction.
Which makes it all the more interesting that after five novels set in the early 1930s (the sixth, Viper, is published in English this month), he has now turned to contemporary Naples for a second series, this time featuring police inspector Giuseppe Lojacono, whose debut was in the prize-winning and bestselling revenge thriller The Crocodile.
Although not yet in English, Lojacono returns in I Bastardi Di Pizzafalcone - ‘The Bastards of Pizzafalcone’ (which I have seen listed as Inglorious Pizzafalcone), a reference to the Pizzafalcone area of Naples where there is a police station which covers four quite distinct neighbourhoods: upmarket, poor, business and historic. There is no other place like it, Maurizio assures me, as a microcosm of the city of Naples.
Clearly, De Giovanni’s writing is not so much about crime and detection as about Naples itself. He does not, he says, plan his books around Naples so much as listen to the city. I ask him if he is comparing and contrasting Naples in two different periods of history with the rest of Italy. Is Naples almost a different country?
Maurizio shrugs philosophically and says it’s not so much a different country as a different planet and, he feels, probably has more in common with South America than modern Italy. Certainly he lists Latin American writing as an influence on his own fiction, as well as the crime fiction of Ed McBain (“who was the greatest”) and I suspect the South American connection figures in Maurizio’s other great passion: football.
A dedicated Napoli supporter, he has alternated his novels with short stories and sports writing and the clues are there in two pieces: The Taking of Turin (when Napoli beat Juventus 3-1) and Miracle at Turin (guess who won 3-2). And his writingphilosophy could well be summed up in a 2010 article To Score You Have To Shoot At Goal.
Which makes sense of his ebullient claim that if he doesn’t make it as ‘Italy’s Ed McBain’ (and of course, McBain’s given name was Salvatore Lombino, though I have no idea if he supported Napoli) then Maurizio would settle for being ‘Italy’s Nick Hornby’.
Now I am no expert on Serie A football in Italy – although Napoli seem to be doing well at the moment - but I have no doubt that De Giovanni will make it as a major force in ‘Giallo’. His crime-fiction, both historic and contemporary, is straightforward and well-paced, with sensitive, well-fleshed characters and already a hit in Spanish, German and French translations. He is also fortunate to be blessed with an excellent English translator in American Antony Shugaar.
Maurizio De Giovanni’s Inspector Lojacono novel The Crocodile is published here by Abacus. His Commissario Ricciardi novels, set in the 1930s, are published by Europa in their World Noir series and the latest, Viper, comes out on 26th March.