THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
That awful mess on the Via Merulana is a classic of Italian crime fiction and only recently I managed to close this terrible gap in my knowledge so at risk of being considered a philistine by many experts, here are my thoughts on it.
It was published from 1946 (in serialised form) so I was prepared to contextualise the writing and the plot to its historical setting. The first 50 pages really had me in stitches: the use of the Roman dialect and the description of people is really amazing. However, despite two murders happening in the book, it is a bit of a stretch to call it a crime fiction book. It is more a snapshot (and a long one at that) of life in the Roman suburbs in the fascist period. It might spoil the plot to say that the culprit is not found, despite the best efforts of the investigators.
And the book does feel like it’s unfinished, especially in the last page.
I do appreciate the masterful use of language and its historical importance (Gadda echoes other masters of Italian literature like Belli especially in the use of dialect). However, frequently the author launches into “soliloquies” where even a native speaker is baffled at the use of words, and which do not seem to me to have much purpose except for showing off such mastery of language.
The plot really is very thin but this is perhaps a characteristic of Italian crime fiction, much more based on the insight into characters than rollercoaster action – and undoubtedly Gadda was one of the founders of this particular style.
All in all, I find it very hard to express a non-contradictory opinion: it is indeed a translator’s nightmare, and the use of language is second to none (perhaps only Umberto Eco comes close). But, perhaps because of the different historical setting, there are a lot more aspects which I value in a book: plot, consistency and flow, which seem to be somewhat lacking in this one.