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The Bastards of Pizzofalcone

By Rohan Maitzen.

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Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone and
Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone,
translated by Antony Shugaar (Europa, 2015-16)

In his 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler famously declared that Dashiell Hammett had “given murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” For Chandler, and for many who followed, Hammett’s infusion of realism had rescued detective fiction from triviality, insulating it from the derision of those who, like Edmund Wilson, considered it “a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.” To the contrary, Chandler argued, an art form capable of The Maltese Falcon “is not ‘by hypothesis’ incapable of anything.”

A streak of idealism remained, however, even in the hard-boiled world of grit and corruption exemplified by Hammett’s novels. In Chandler’s famous formulation, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” This vision of the lone heroic crime fighter has its roots in the vigilantism of the classic Western, and its influence extends forward through a long series of tough but true-hearted private eyes, from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser to Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. But even as this tradition has persisted and developed, something else has happened to the genre of detective fiction: today, crime-fighting itself has been given back to the kind of people who do it for reasons, not just to provide a hero. Again, realism was a key impulse. One of the key figures in this development was the American writer Evan Hunter, who, under the pseudonym “Ed McBain,” wrote the ground-breaking 87th Precinct series. “If you came home late at night,” McBain wrote in his introduction to the first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater (1956),

and found your wife murdered in the bed you shared, you didn’t call a private eye, and you didn’t call a little old lady with knitting needles, and if you called your lawyer it was to ask what you should say when you called the police.

Only a cop really has any legitimate reason to solve a crime, and so McBain felt that “any other character dealing with murder was unconvincing” as the protagonist of a crime novel. But at the same time, “a single cop did not a series make,” and this, along with the desire to do something “new in the annals of police procedurals,” led McBain to his idea of “a squad room full of cops, each with different traits, who when put together would form a conglomerate hero.”

McBain’s model, with its dynamic interaction of people, storylines, and setting, focuses our attention on the local manifestations of crime and thus, inevitably, on the social and economic conditions that give it a distinctive character in a particular place and time. By acknowledging, also, the bureaucratic character of law-enforcement (Cop Hater, for instance, reproduces key documents, such as ballistics reports and booking cards), McBain reminds us again and again that crime-fighting is professional work, carried out within a system that may leave little room for individual initiative, never mind heroism. The kind of moral transcendence enacted by Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is, in this world, a fantasy on par with the puzzle-solving of Hercule Poirot: achieving justice is an institutional, collective and, crucially, political effort.

McBain’s formula proved both highly dramatic and highly adaptable: many of the most popular crime novels today are police procedurals of this kind, as are many successful crime dramas—such as the long-running television series Law & Order, to give just one example. McBain’s influence also extended well beyond the United States. From 1965 to 1976, for instance, the Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö published a brilliant ten-volume series of procedurals collectively titled The Story of Crime; cumulatively, these books present a devastating Marxist critique of the shortcomings of Sweden’s socialist state. Italian novelist Maurizio de Giovanni (who calls McBain his “unparalleled master”) continues this tradition with his Pizzofalcone novels, the first two of which—The Bastards of Pizzofalcone and Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone—have now been translated by Antony Shugaar and published by Europa Press in their “World Noir” line.

De Giovanni brings to McBain’s formula the distinct tone and moral perspective he developed in his earlier series, the Commissario Ricciardi books, also set in Naples. Like the Bastards books, the Commissario Ricciardi novels are police procedurals, but they have a supernatural twist: their eponymous protagonist is afflicted with a form of second sight that reveals to him, in a stream of harrowing visions, victims of fatal violence in their last moments. For Ricciardi the police officer, this is a singular advantage, as his visions often yield clues; but Ricciardi the man pays a high price for this grim window on the world, for the constant and inescapable reminders that the streets and buildings of his beloved city are haunted by violence and suffering. The Commissario Ricciardi books are also shadowed by the specter of large-scale violence: they are historical mysteries, set in the 1930s during the rise of Mussolini. The novels are suffused, then, with the depressing reality of mankind’s capacity for inhumanity. That any tenderness survives, that any justice can be found, that any light persists in this darkness, seems like a small miracle—and these glimmers of hope sustain the reader as well as Ricciardi.

In the Bastard books, the historical and supernatural elements are stripped away: instead, we have contemporary Naples in all its noisy complexity, and a group of cops whose insights into crime arise as much from their own imperfections as from their training and experience. We arrive in the rough Neapolitan precinct of Pizzofalcone in the company of Lieutenant Giuseppe Lojacono, a Sicilian known as “the Chinaman” because of his “almond-shaped eyes.” Lojacono, himself professionally compromised by unfounded but sticky accusations of complicity with the mafia, has been sent to Pizzofalcone as part of an effort to rehabilitate the precinct, which has been under a cloud since four of its officers were caught dealing drugs. Their replacements are discards, Lojacono’s Commissario warns him: “people who aren’t welcome where they are now, whose commanding officers are eager to get rid of them. Renegades, bastards, or screwups, every last one of them!”

Each of the Bastards books is structured around a primary case with subordinate but sometimes intersecting plot lines. In the first one, the wife of a well-connected notary is found murdered in her apartment. Characteristically, de Giovanni spares us nothing in his description of her gruesome and undignified death:

The body, facedown, was that of a middle-aged woman, her pink dressing gown hiked up slightly on her legs. A pair of socks, a slipper on one foot, another slipper a few inches away. The face was gray, and it rested on one cheek. The eye that was visible, half-open to the panorama of life’s end, was expressionless. The mouth gaped partly open.

The second book turns on the kidnapping of a young boy, the grandson of a wealthy real estate developer: bitter family feuding intersects with greed and desperation, yielding tragic results. Both investigations are compelling, requiring persistent police work as well as insight into human nature. Both cases also require the detectives, and thus us, to explore many different corners of Naples, something that is especially important for Lojacono, as a newcomer to the city:

He was finally trying to get to know the place a little better, if only so he could work there; a policeman, he knew, has to breathe the air of the city he works in. He has to be able to savor its silences, its hesitations; he has to know the smell of its fear and suspicion, its indifference and arrogance, in order to be able to fight them.

De Giovanni excels at conveying the day-to-day atmosphere of the city, from its coffee shops and neighborhood restaurants to its elite private clubs, businesses, and halls of power. Naples is “three cities really,” an interviewee tells Lojacono in Bastards:

One city, the one that really matters, is just a small town with a population of a few thousand. A second city consists of everyone with a job and a salary, who live from the 27th of one month to the 27th of the next, hoping they’ll be able to afford a beach vacation. The third city, with a million or so inhabitants, gets by and tries to survive as best it can.

Like many of his procedural predecessors, de Giovanni uses his chosen form to reveal a very different city than the one either tourists or law-abiding citizens typically see.

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Engrossing as the cases are, they are really occasions for the books’ larger ongoing story: the redemption of the Bastards of Pizzofalcone. Each of these “stray dogs” brings into the precinct station every morning the baggage of past or present secrets, transgressions, or fears. One of the newly assigned officers, Warrant Officer Francesco Romano, struggles to control his temper: “he’d grabbed a suspect by the throat, and then proceeded to blacken the eye of a fellow cop who had tried—successfully—to keep him from making a real mess of things.” When he hits his wife, who then leaves him, he knows he has crossed a line but still blends endless self-justifications with his regrets: “It’s not your fault, Francesco Romano, if she’s so delicate that she got a black eye and a bruise on her cheek from nothing more than a love tap.” Officer Alessandra Di Nardo’s pistol went off in her previous precinct house “in circumstances that remained murky”; while her colleagues worry about her firearm fixation, she is more concerned to conceal her sexuality, from them and from the parents who hound her relentlessly about her marriage prospects. Corporal Marco Aragorna annoys everyone in the station with his flashy clothes and Elvis hair-do, and terrifies them with his reckless driving. The leftovers from the old squad aren’t much better prospects: Deputy Captain Giorgio Pisanelli conceals his prostate cancer in order to ensure he can pursue his obsession with a string of suicides he is convinced are murders, and Deputy Sergeant Ottavia Calabrese works long hours to avoid going home to the emotional demands of her too-doting husband and their autistic son. “Things were actually worse than he’d assumed,” Lojacono thinks after meeting this motley crew.

Unlike Chandler’s idealized detective, these cops are all tarnished and often afraid; even the best-intentioned of them picks up a little of the grit and corruption of Naples’ mean streets, and de Giovanni does not hold out any simple-minded promise of salvation. Instead, he emphasizes the futility of expecting clear or lasting distinctions between these “good guys” and the “bad guys” they pit themselves against. “You can’t say that you’re not a respectable person,” Romano thinks to himself;

And you can’t say that you’re not a respectable person, Francesco Romano. An honest and upstanding man; it’s no accident that you decided to be a policeman. Good men become policemen, don’t they? Not criminals. Criminals by definition are bad men; they rob, they rape, they kill. And the policemen chase them, catch them; they don’t do what those bad men do.

The irony of this declaration from an abusive husband, keen to sustain the myth of his own innocence, only underscores the novel’s point: such labels are inadequate to the moral murkiness in which human behaviour is so often mired. In the first book, for instance, Romano and di Nardo work on a case involving a mysteriously shut up apartment in which they discover a young woman living in luxury, with every modern convenience except her liberty. They assume she is a captive, that the well-heeled older man who answers for her is a predator from who she needs to be rescued, that her family has traded her to him in exchange for their own prosperity. When they confront her, though, she confronts them in turn, with a pragmatism to which they have no reply:

Have you looked around at this place? And did you see where I used to live? Have you seen my mother? And the vicolo [alley], did you see that? . . . All I care about is the apartment and the way he treats me. What, do you think I’d be better off with a young man who’ll slap me around from dawn till dusk, who’ll knock me up ten times and make me live in a rat-infested ground-floor hovel? He’s kind, he’s courteous, and he gives me presents all the time. And he even helped out my family.

The man who takes advantage of her limited options is offensive, but he’s not breaking any law; as Romano observes, “If the girl is there of her own free will, there’s no way we can haul her out.” They have solved the case—now they know what’s going on behind the closed doors and shutters—but they have neither the authority nor the means to fix the perverse situation.

The suicides with which Pisanelli is obsessed yield another example of de Giovanni’s persistent complication of moral boundaries. It turns out the old cop is not wrong that they are murders. They are seen quite differently by the priest Pisanelli turns to for comfort and support, though for his own reasons he keeps his perspective to himself:

Giorgio, Giorgio, my poor friend. Don’t you see what a great grace it is—for those who want to escape from a life of pain, an existence made up of silence and shadows, where every memory is a knife to the heart—to find someone to take up that burden? Don’t you see how hard it is to help these poor wretches, without letting them stain their souls with the most horrible sin of all? Don’t you see that the one who performs this act of extreme charity is delivering them to Paradise?

It’s hard not to recoil (as Pisanelli would, if he heard them) from these exculpatory assumptions about someone who is coopting the ultimate choice of life or death, but we see enough of the victims to know that the priest is not altogether wrong about their circumstances. Even Pisanelli understands, from watching his own wife’s drawn-out and painful death, that the end can sometimes be welcome.

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, with all their own confusions, flaws, and vices, belong in the same messy world it’s their job to police. They know, too, that they aren’t perfect—“Didn’t they all have some dark chapter in their pasts, there at Pizzofalcone?”—and that awareness sometimes gives them the capacity to forgive others their trespasses. “They were our colleagues,” Pisanelli tells Lojacono when the newcomer tries to distance the current officers from their fired predecessors:

Men with a hard job and not much money and sick children to take care of, and debts. Men who fell into temptation, when all their job gave them was a mountain of shit in each hand, same as it does us every day of the week. . . . That’s one thing no one will forgive them, and won’t forgive those who decided to keep this place open: the fact that those guys could have been any one of us.

That acknowledgment doesn’t mean the current officers don’t try their hardest, though, to find and stop criminals, especially those whose evil acts—like murder and kidnapping—leave no room for ethical equivocation. And by the end of Darkness, the renewed precinct has even found some pride in themselves and their work: “the Bastards, more and more each day, were becoming aware of themselves as an entity: no minor thing for people who until just recently had been thought of as scum.”

Darkness ends on a grim and tragic note, which is fitting given that the police procedural as a literary form is inherently pessimistic: we only need a full-time, permanent police force, after all, because though individual cases sometimes do get solved and justice is occasionally achieved, crime itself is incessant, a permanent reflection of the worst in human nature and—as the procedural form also emphasizes—of the weaknesses and failures of human societies. Like the Commissario Ricciardi novels, however, the Bastard books are leavened with bits of dry humor and moments of genuine grace, trust, and compassion. Most of the Bastards aren’t really bastards, and collectively they are all striving to make the world a little kinder and safer, perhaps even a little fairer. That they can’t do more reflects more on the world they live in than on them. This is, ultimately, a more empowering message for crime fiction than Chandler’s vision of a knight errant coming to our rescue: the streets, it turns out, are as mean as we make them.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Quill & Quire, and the Los Angeles Review of Books; she is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 2nd, 2016.