“Justice is a machine with neither heart nor intelligence: it acts as instructed.”
Pushkin Press‘s new Vertigo imprint suggests the reader “step inside a dizzying world of criminal masterminds,” and Piero Chiara’s crime novel, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, certainly fits that rather ambitious description. This is the story of the disappearance of a married woman, and it’s a case which continues to haunt the man who leads the investigation. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is definitely not a traditional detective novel, but it is intriguing.
It’s 1955. Commissario Corrado Sciancalepre is a talented policeman who’s “blessed with a special form of intuition, that particular mental agility that enables great policemen to delve into the minds of criminals.” He’s due for a promotion and yet he feels a tie with the small town of M, located in Northern Lombardy. He has a varied job: he’s an investigator, commissioner for public safety, and a counselor of sorts. The novel opens with Sciancalepre looking ahead to a golden future and with no idea that the case of his career is headed his way.
The case begins when Esengrini, the region’s “most agile and authoritative criminal lawyer,” a former mayor and chief magistrate “during the fascist period,” contacts Sciancalepre for assistance. It seems that Esengrini’s much younger wife, the very attractive Signora Giulia has disappeared. Giulia has a standing appointment every Thursday to travel by train to Milan to visit the couple’s daughter, Emilia, at boarding school. This Thursday is different. Her bedroom is a shambles, and it appears that suitcases, clothing and a substantial amount of jewelry are all missing. Esengrini has ascertained, from the gardener, that Giulia didn’t leave by the main gate, and he concludes that his wife has run off with another man. Esengrini had his suspicions that his wife was having an affair and that the weekly trip to Milan was just a cover for these assignations.
Sciancalepre’s investigation of “The Esengrini Affair,” initially yields plenty of clues–all leading to adultery and the theory that Guilia ran off with another man. Sciancalepre asks himself what he would have done in Esengrini’s shoes and concludes:
I’d have poisoned her, he mused, or shot her on the spot, at the right moment. No one could have argued that it wasn’t a crime of passion, and I could get off with a few years.
It appears that the case will remain unsolved. Years pass, and events in the small town of M, now involving Guilia’s daughter, stir the embers of the old, still unsolved case….
Here’s a long quote in which the now adult Emilia talks to Sciancalepre about her mother’s disappearance:
One evening she found Sciancalepre in that [train] compartment. They made the entire journey together, and for the first time, Emilia spoke about her mother. She’d realized by now that there was something strange about her mother’s disappearance, and she wished she knew what was in her father’s heart. But it was something she’d never been able to ask him because she felt intimidated–or perhaps because she understood it was something they must never discuss.
“It’s a mystery. A mystery!” said the Commissario. And he tried to get her to speak, asking what her father thought about it. “Did you read the papers?” he asked.
“Yes, I read then, but I don’t believe any of their speculations. In any case. as far as I’m concerned, my mother’s dead: I can feel it.”
Truth to tell, Sciancalepre also sensed it, but he didn’t want to think any more about the case. The folder, with all the notes and photographs of Signora Giulia, was still in his drawer. Formally, the case was still open, but the paper in the file was starting to yellow and surely some day soon one of his successors would send it to the archives. And Sciancalepre was expecting a promotion–which would mean a transfer.
The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is an unconventional, compelling crime novel. Like any great detective, Sciancalepre is haunted by a case he cannot solve, and yet he also knows that the mystery hasn’t vanished; it’s just festering there in the recesses of his mind. I was frustrated by the ending–as we’re probably meant to be, so I immediately reread it in order to try and ‘solve’ the mystery for myself. This is the second novel I’ve read from Pushkin Press‘s Vertigo line, and so far I’m very impressed. For those interested, Vertigo is also recommended for crime fans.
Finally, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia takes place in the mid-50s, and there are a few references to the social views of the times, so we see the Commissario telling Esengrini to launch a suit against Giulia for “abandoning the marital home.” Additionally, it seems as though it was possible to arrest someone for adultery.
Review copy. Translated by Jill Foulston