Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486
Set against the backdrop of Benito Mussolini’s new Fascist order in Italy, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana recounts the police investigation of two apparently related crimes. As the novel begins, Inspector Francesco Ingravallo, a friend of Liliana Balducci and her husband, is summoned to their apartment building on Via Merulana, where one of their neighbors, a wealthy widow, has been robbed. The robbery victim, Teresina Menegazzi, reports hysterically that the thief was an attractive young man who, posing as an electrician, entered her apartment, terrorized her with a knife, and fled with her jewelry. Hardly has Ingravallo’s investigation of this crime begun, however, when Liliana Balducci herself is discovered with her throat cut and some of her jewelry stolen.
Dismayed by the murder of Liliana, for whom he has felt perhaps more than friendship, Ingravallo proceeds with an intensive, methodical investigation. Suspicion temporarily rests on a cousin of Liliana, Giuliano Valdarena, but this lead proves false and the young man is cleared. Other possible suspects include a retired government official in the same building, Commendatore Angeloni, and Liliana’s husband, Remo Balducci. Both men, however, also prove to be innocent.
A more promising lead is discovered when the investigation focuses on some young women formerly employed as maids by Liliana. Suspecting that one of them may have been involved as an accomplice, Ingravallo now begins to track down the girls and their male associates. His search leads him into the seamy underside of Roman street life, a world he already knows intimately. In this chaotic realm of petty thieves and prostitutes, hustlers, beggars, street vendors, off-duty soldiers, and drifters, the shop of Zamira Pacori is a kind of epicenter. Ostensibly a seamstress who employs several girls as helpers, Pacori, in all likelihood, operates an informal brothel, as well as dispensing wine, love potions, and quack remedies to her clientele. Two of her “seamstresses,” Ines Cionini and Lavinia Mattonari, have also served as household servants for Liliana; each of the girls, moreover, is connected with a suspicious male friend, Diomede Lanciani and Enea Ratalli, respectively, either of whom could fit Teresina Menegazzi’s description of the thief.
By this point, the investigation has brought in the Italian national police, or carabinieri, since the search for the young women and their suspected accomplices goes beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the Roman police. The seedy, brutal Corporal Pestalozzi and his associates crack the case wide open. Pursuing their network of leads to a village outside Rome, they find the jewelry stolen from Teresina Menegazzi in a cottage occupied by Camilla Mattonari, a cousin of Lavinia.
It would seem, following this startling discovery, that the solution to both crimes is at hand. A few pages later, however, the novel simply comes to an end, with the “awful mess” of the title still unresolved. Carlo Emilio Gadda has chosen to leave the story in a deliberately unfinished form.