Murder mysteries set in Fascist Europe are dark and creepy. There is something particularly ominous and exciting about a detective trying to do his job and solve a crime in an atmosphere of violent corruption. Typically the detective’s efforts to solve the crime peel away layer upon layer of cruelty and horrific abuse, and no one is really a good guy. This is the essence of noir, with the added dimension of knowing how much worse things are going to get as Fascism plays out. The reader knows that most of these characters are doomed and that they have no idea of the horrors that await them.
Viper, a dark Italian mystery by Maurizo deGiovanni, is a fine contribution to this gloomy genre. Set in Naples in 1932, Viper involves a murder at a brothel in 1932, and Commissario Ricciardi has the case. The characters are well-drawn and conflicted. Ricciardi is very much a Humphrey Bogart sort of character. He is smart and sarcastic, while at the same time displaying a closet idealism. He fears what is to come. Notwithstanding his scruples, circumstances compel him to play ball with terrifying thugs. He has a few cards to play and uses them carefully, but the new Fascist order complicates everything and threatens everyone. Much as Ricciardi and his colleagues might like to proceed with business as usual and simply solve the murder, the present reality drags them into bed with the regime and its representatives. The solution to the crime is cleverly plotted, and fortunately the humor and understanding among Ricciardi’s various relationships mitigate some of the despair. The unresolved romantic backstory adds some welcome humanity and a pleasing vulnerability to a very interesting detective.
I highly recommend this book, particularly to readers who are interested in Italy and in Europe between the two world wars. I can’t wait to go back and read the first book in this series.