Monday, June 17, 2013

Josh reviews "Lazarus is Dead," by Richard Beard and "I Will HaveVengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi," by Maurizio de Giovanni

Two very different Europa Editions and I have crossed paths in the past month or so- Richard Beard's "Lazarus Is Dead" and Maurizio de Giovanni's "I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi." Giovanni's "Vengeance" I read on my own, while "Lazarus is Dead" is my book club selection for this month. (Aside: next month we break into two groups and each read one of Ioanna Kyrystiani's works, I'm very excited about this!). Set in Jerusalem and Naples respectively, these two works have little in common thematically or plot-wise, although the historical detail provided by each author was that rare kind of informative that never took away from the entertainment.

"Lazarus" combines historical fiction with theological research and philosophical meditation to tell the story of Jesus Christ and Lazarus, as childhood friends through the deaths of both men. Beard uses a delicate hand in his prose, providing as much information as I'm sure any lecturer on Lazarus would, without making the reader feel like they're being lectured, or worse, preached to. Conversely, I highly doubt that even the most devout would take offense to a book so meticulously researched and thought out. The book's primary action takes place at the beginning of Jesus Christ's series of miracles as told by the New Testament Gospels; these events parallel a precipitous decline in the personal health and fortune of Lazarus, childhood friend of Jesus Christ and fellow survivor of Herod's infant slaughter 30 some-odd years earlier.

In Beard's "Lazarus is Dead," the connection between the two men is more than mere coincidence, with Beard's story (and research) suggesting that Lazarus's life was fated/ordained in many of the same ways as Jesus Christ's life. His suffering, death, resurrection are portrayed not simply as miracles, but more. They are shown as necessary steps for Jesus himself to take in order to achieve what he does with his own Resurrection. Researching with a depth I am sure many of the Christian or Jewish faith would not typically ascribe to the story of Lazarus, Beard's decision to blend the historical with the fiction is a bold one. It would have been far easier to write a straight philosophical meditation or a plot-driven historical fiction.

I enjoyed "Lazarus is Dead" as an intriguing novel with a unique premise. The book takes a story so many of us are familiar with and refreshes it without losing any of the power of the story as we knew it before.  Quite the opposite, Beard's work gives depth and meaning beyond what I had previously encountered. For the reader who feels like maybe they haven't read anything out of their comfort zone or out of the ordinary lately, I would recommend this one.

If new and unique isn't quite what you're looking for, then Giovanni's "I Will Have Vengeance" may be a better fit. Instead of breaking new ground, I found "Vengeance" to be an artful re-tread of Mediterranean noir, packaging all the aspects of the genre I love into a slim, fast-paced, well-written fireball.  Working at the height of Il Duce's control of Italy, Commissario Ricciardi works to solve murders in Naples. He's a loner, tormented by the visions he sees of individuals in the last throes of life wherever he goes.

This first in what appears to be a 4-part series finds Ricciardi investigating the death of a brilliantly talented tenor...whose personality was universally despised by all who knew him despite his acclaim as a national treasure.  His murder therefore, becomes quite the high-profile case. Giovanni weaves in the familiar archetypes of noir I've come to recognize from similar works- corrupt/inept upper management, political intrigue, doomed romance and an underlying futility for the future of the lower class.  Giovanni weaves them well, introducing a supporting cast of characters including a sympathetic, honest lieutenant working under Ricciardi, the sniveling assistant to his lazy, politically minded police chief, the older female family member resigned to care for our forlorn hero and an elusive neighbor. Ricciardi's eyes give away the intensity behind his world-weary persona. He brooks no dishonesty, quiets insults and complaints with a look and ferrets out the truth in an almost relentless manner.

For those new to noir, "Vengeance" is a dare-I-say safe choice. The body count and the vivid descriptions of violence found in other works in this genre are toned down somewhat, without losing any of the sensory experience noir at its best can be. Which is why "Vengeance" worked so well for me I think, it wasn't a new adventurous meal at a restaurant everyone's talking about that you haven't been to before; it was the kind of meal you get close to home somewhere after a long day and you just want something familiar and delicious.

These are books six and seven for my challenge this year!