Tag Archives: Italian crime fiction

The Mystery of the Three Orchids: Augusto de Angelis (1942)

“If everyone who had some reason to kill really did kill, the ground would be strewn with bodies.”

Both The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses feature Augusto de Angelis’s series character Inspector De Vincenzi, and now with the release of The Mystery of the Three Orchids from Pushkin Vertigo, we have a third book in the series. Many of the titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line are outstanding: Vertigo, The Wicked Go To Hell, Bird in a Cage, She Who Was No More, and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia are highly recommended for any crime fiction lover who’s looking for titles that push the genre. That brings me to the De Vincenzi novels, the stack on the left of the Pushkin Vertigo titles; these books are much more standard police procedurals. I wasn’t wowed by either of the two earlier novels, but The Mystery of the Three Orchids picks up the pace, and is the best of the three so far

mystery-of-the-three-orchids

The focus in The Mystery of the Orchids is a fashion house in Milan. On the day that American ex-pat Cristiana O’Brien, a woman with a “magnificent body,” shows her spring collection to “Milan’s very best clients, the richest–truly the ideal clients for a great fashion house,”a body turns up on Cristiana’s bed. The body is Valerio, a young man Cristiana met in Naples, now employed as a “loyal drudge, the slave she used for everything.” Cristiana is shocked by the body, but after all, she had no sentimental attachment to the victim. What does terrify her, however, is the sight of an orchid–a flower she detests–left in her room.

The device of an anonymous letter (which appeared in The Hotel of the Three Roses--it was an anonymous phone call in The Murdered Banker) appears here in order to move along the plot. Soon Inspector De Vincenzi is on the scene to solve the crime, but the body (and the orchid) count rises. The Inspector certainly doesn’t investigate in any sort of formal fashion. He takes a wait-and-see attitude with an emphasis on “psychological clues.” To De Vincenzi, “only someone who knew how to read the murderer’s soul could unmask them.” Of course with this sort of approach to criminal investigation, readers know to expect that De Vincenzi will unmask the criminal, dramatically, at the end of the novel rather than methodically pursuing clues.  While De Vincenzi can hardly be accused of being obsessive about catching his murderer (I’m not convinced he’s a very good detective,) in this novel, the inspector becomes a more interesting character.

When it came down to it he was sentimental, and he had an instinctive respect for the dead, for scoundrels who’d once been alive.

The author peppers the story with some colourful characters, including a bitchy model and an idiosyncratic dress designer. There’s also a very cinematic scene involving a room full of headless dressmaker dummies. While De Vincenzi believes that “lying and distraction come easily to women: their deviousness is automatic” he takes an instant liking to Evelina,  Cristiana’s heavy-set book-keeper. He decides “you can’t weigh more than a hundred kilos without having a correspondingly light conscience.”  Prospero O’Lary, Cristiana’s director is described by De Vincenzi as a “black tortoise ill with meningitis.”

No one in the fashion house is what they seem, and the plot’s emphasis is American gangsterism at play in Milan. De Vincenzi is a reader, a fan of Anatole France, but he’s also read Persons in Hidingwritten by the head of the G-men, J. Edgar Hoover,” an invaluable resource as it turns out. Author de Angelis may show American crime as tainting Milan society, but there’s also a sneaking feeling that the introduction of American gangsters into Italian life is a bit of a thrill.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

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The Hotel of the Three Roses: Augusto De Angelis

Earlier this year I read The Murdered Banker, one of the new titles from Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo crime books. The book, written by Augusto De Angelis, featured series detective Inspector De Vincenzi. I was disappointed in the book as it didn’t match the quality of the earlier Vertigo titles I’d read: She Who Was No More, Vertigo, and The Disappearance of Signora Guilia. Those three titles all had something new to offer to the crime genre, and all three novels were disturbing reads for various reasons. The Murdered Banker was a standard police procedural, and although the set-up was good, the denouement was disappointing. This brings me to The Hotel of the Three Roses, with its rather promising title. I should add that I have a soft spot for books set in hotels (boarding houses and asylums)–primarily for the way the setting throws various types together in forced intimacy.

The hotel of the three roses

It’s Italy 1919. Someone sends the Inspector an anonymous letter complaining about the Hotel of the Three Roses, claiming that it’s a den of iniquity, a “gathering of addicts and degenerates” and that a “horrible drama is brewing, one that will blow up if the police don’t intervene.” De Vincenzi takes the letter seriously, and requests a guest list. Immediately he senses that there’s something odd. Many of the guests are from London, and De Vincenzi wonders how all these foreigners know about the existence of this obscure third-rate hotel as “it’s not the kind you just stumble upon.” He decides to check the hotel that night. Just then he gets a call that a murder has occurred at the hotel, and this is the beginning of his investigation.

The murdered man was found hanging in his room, but according to the doctor called to the scene, the man was strung up after his death. Was this some sort of sick decision by the killer, or was the killer trying to hide the real cause of death? De Vincenzi begins questioning the strange assortment of guests and it becomes quite apparent that something peculiar is afoot at the hotel….

The Hotel of the Three Roses, a touch overly dramatic at timesis a good little mystery, and the police procedural is elevated by a cast composed of the strange, diverse assortment of guests, including a young gambler, heavily in debt and the doll-toting widow of a British army officer.  It’s clear that there’s a great secret between the guests, but De Vincenzi, driven by the desire to stop evil, must work hard to crack the silence.

With each step of the investigation, he found unexpected connections between all these people when it seemed there shouldn’t be any.

Italy seems to be a setting in which an author can capitalize on sun and glorious weather (thinking The Enchanted April and Where Angels Fear to Tread), but here Italy is portrayed rather differently, with incessant rain–a climate that matches the murky origins of a long-brewing crime:

The rain was coming down in long threads that looked silvery in the glare of the headlamps. A fog diffuse and smoky, needled the face. An unbroken line of umbrellas bobbed along the pavements.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

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A Fine Line: Gianrico Carofiglio

Unlike the main character of Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrieri series, I’m not a lawyer, but as a crime junkie, I find myself asking questions: what does it feel like to be a defense lawyer? Yes I know that everyone is supposed to deserve a decent defense but ….Do you always believe that your client is innocent? If not, how  do you cope, morally, with the knowledge that your client is guilty? Are you picky about the cases you take–for example, do you reject accused pedophiles or heinous murder cases? Can you afford to be that selective or do you decide on a case-by-case basis? All these questions are answered in A Fine Line, which can be read as a standalone, the most philosophical Guido Guerrieri novel in the series.

a fine line

A Fine Line finds Avvocato Guido Guerrieri defending a rape case, the sort of thing he normally avoids, but in this instance, it’s a clear case of sloppy investigation. Soon after the case wraps up, he’s approached by Judge Pierluigi Larocca for representation. Larocca has just learned that there’s a bribery case brewing against him with a “Mafioso who’s turned state’s evidence” as the star witness. Guido has “never heard the slightest gossip” about Larocca who has a reputation for being incorruptible. For Larocca, who hopes to gain a promotion in the next few months, the case could not have come at a worse time. He hires Guido and Guido goes to work digging into the case against Larocca.

Guido hires Annapaola Doria, a bisexual private detective to ferret out information about the case, and since the prosecution is keeping everything hush hush, some of the PI’s methods aren’t orthodox or legal.

Although a few scenes take place in the courtroom, this is not a courtroom thriller. As the most meditative Guido Guerrieri novel to date, A Fine Line examines the Italian legal system, facing middle age, and how to maintain integrity in one’s profession. If you are hoping for the usual crime novel or even something hard-boiled, you are likely to be disappointed. Instead we follow Guido as he goes through his daily life and this includes the conversations he has with his punching bag, arguments he debates with himself, making observations about people in a café, and even a chance meeting in a bookshop. So in other words, the book mirrors life with all its trivia;  it’s not 24/7 crime busting.

I enjoyed A Fine Line more than the other novels in the series that I’ve read. There are five books so far, and I’ve read three, and I liked this one for its philosophical meditations which addressed many of the questions I had about being a defense lawyer. It’s through the Larocca case, that Guido comes to terms with his life, reaching mature decisions while recognizing his own weaknesses and foibles.

I had an image of myself and tried to live up to it. One way or another. Whenever there was a clash with reality, it was reality that had to adapt. But that’s a mechanism that can’t work forever. Gradually you lose your sense of balance

translated by Howard Curtis

review copy

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The Murdered Banker: Augusto De Angelis

“Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.”

Last year, I read and review a few titles from the new Vertigo Crime imprint from Pushkin Press. Naturally Vertigo had to make the list–along with She Who Was No More and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia. 2016 brings me to The Murdered Banker (1935), an Italian crime novel from Augusto De Angelis. This novel features series detective, Inspector De Vincenzi, who’s working late one night when an old friend, former classmate, Aurigi, unexpectedly turns up at the police station in an agitated state. Aurigi’s visit seems to be a curious coincidence when De Vincenzi receives a call regarding a murder that has taken place in Aurigi’s apartment…

the murdered banker

The murdered man, who has been shot, was a banker, and Aurigi was deeply in his debt. Aurigi should, by rights, be arrested for the crime, but for Inspector De Vincenzi, that solution seems too easy. Yet there are many reasons that Aurigi should be implicated in the crime. After all the banker was shot in Aurigi’s apartment, and Aurigi was heavily in debt to the victim and apparently had no means to settle his debt. Aurigi’s engagement to society beauty Maria Giovanna was predicated on his wealth which makes Aurigi an even bigger suspect. Yet when a  small golden phial of poison is found in the kitchen of Aurigi’s apartment, Inspector De Vincenzi starts to believe that more than one tragedy lies in the murder….

In that room, in that apartment, a heavy, gloomy atmosphere hung over everything like an invisible weight-something monstrous, inhuman. And not only the mystery of the body, but some other unthinkable thing. He felt it. Not only was Aurigi mixed up in it–the friend with whom he’d studied at school and who was a poet like him-but everything, all of if felt strange.

That’s a promising quote, and it’s easy to imagine that the solution to the crime is going to be something intriguing, different, memorable. Unfortunately, the solution, while involving a complex chain reaction between various characters, never quite lives up to the quote.

The Murdered Banker is the first in the Inspector De Vincenzi series, and although the series character is interesting and has a unique humane approach to crime, this is not a particularly strong novel. The book starts strongly but then weakens as attention is focused on the various characters who live in or visit Aurigi’s apartment. As the plot unfolds, the scenes could be stage sets for a play. One of De Vincenzi’s methods, for example, is to lead various characters, without warning, to the dead body, so that he can monitor their reactions. This may have more impact on the stage than it does on the page.

This is one of those crimes where the reader doesn’t really know what is going on, and the inspector seems to have ideas which he hugs to himself and doesn’t disclose. The stage is set, however, for some interesting series characters, including Maccari who is troubled by the dead and is only three years away from retirement. Still The Murdered Banker is the first in a series, and the first novel is often the weakest, so I’m looking forward to the next title: The Hotel of the Three Roses.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

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The Disappearance of Signora Giulia: Piero Chiara

“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.

The disappearance of signora giuliaSciancalepre’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

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The Master of Knots by Massimo Carlotto

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a fan of Italian author Massimo Carlotto. If you want to read some of the finest Italian crime fiction written, then seek out Death’s Dark Abyss or The Goodbye Kissboth books offer views of Carlotto’s dark worlds of crime, worlds in which morality is an idea for textbooks and has very little to do with the choices life puts in front of us.

But first a word about Massimo Carlotto. His non-fiction book, The Fugitive, recounts how, as a member of Lotta Continua, he was charged with a crime he did not commit.  After three trials he was acquitted, but when the acquittal was overturned, he faced a sentence of 18 years in prison. Carlotto went on the run and eventually ended up in a Mexican jail.

Carlotto knows first hand about ‘justice,’ imprisonment, and institutional violence, and no doubt all this experience is what makes his novels seem so authentic. While he’s written stand-alone novels, there’s also a PI series which features Marco Burrati–otherwise known as the Alligator. The Master of Knots is number 5 in the Alligator series, and while there are some references to the past, I don’t think it’s essential to read the prior 4. I haven’t. 

master of knotsThe Master of Knots finds Marco in his club, La Cuccia which also serves as his unofficial PI office. Marco’s past includes 7 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, so he is forced to register the club in someone else’s name. Business is good, and there’s no financial need to take PI cases, but Marco feels driven by a need to seek justice for those who either have no recourse to the law, or those, who, for a variety of reasons, find the legal system ineffectual or out-of-bounds. Marco’s long-time girlfriend Virna (Bandit Love) who’s unaware of Marco’s past does not understand Marco’s desire to take investigative cases, and this has led to a severance of their relationship. To Marco, his PI work “gave some meaning” to his life, and he can’t let it go.

Marco’s help is sought by a rather weasely man named Giraldi, who claims that his wife Helena, an S & M model with a perfect body, has been kidnapped after keeping a rendezvous with a stranger she met on the internet. Marco dislikes Giraldi immediately, and after a cursory overview of the facts, Marco knows that the husband’s story stinks, but he agrees to take the case.

This missing person’s case takes Marco and his associates, aging old-world gangster Rossini (who sports a gold bracelet, a “scalp,” for every man he’s killed), and anti-globalist activist Max deep into the secret world of S & M. Max, who considers that Helena is in the hands of a “maniac” feels a moral imperative to become involved while Rossini considers the case as something outside of a gangster’s interest. The three men soon penetrate the secret world of S & M, learn the rules for encounters, and conclude that according to Giraldi’s story, his wife Helena, an experienced “slave,” broke every rule in the book. This leads Marco to conclude that either Helena was careless or that Giraldi is lying through his teeth, and if he’s lying, what does he hope to gain? Marco initially doesn’t understand the attraction of S & M at all, but gradually he comes to accept that for some people it fills a deep-seated need.

Playing a role was not a performance they put on just to have some enjoyable sex. There was something deeper that drove people to construct perfectly organized double lives. It was vital that nobody outside the S and M scene should know a thing, not even their nearest and dearest. Discovery would destroy their lives totally.

Cracking open the S & M circuit is no easy matter–especially when those involved are suspicious of outsiders and cautious when it comes to interactions. The lives of S & M players are by their very nature secret, and everyone Marco meets leads double lives. With the help of a couple of Sardinian computer hackers, Marco accesses forums and e-mails of the sites Helena cruised. As Marco goes deeper and deeper into the S & M world, ugly memories from his prison years float to the surface. These are things he’d much rather forget, but seeing sex and violence entwined disturbs Marco and his two associates deeply.

The Master of Knots is the story of a missing S & M model, but it’s much more than that. The impact of violence is central to this story, and S & M–with its variety of sexual encounters performed with mutual consent, rules and various safety boundaries has spun out of control into something much more dangerous. The entire concept of S & M is outside of Marco, Rossini, and Max’s experience, and they don’t understand it, but when they uncover blackmail and underground films that fetch a high price, they are motivated to solve the case.  Marco learns that some S & M “masters” have their very own, well-equipped secret dungeons. For a man who’s endured false imprisonment, torture, and beatings, the idea that some people elect to engage in S & M, even with its rules and boundaries, is simply inconceivable.

Violence–its use and misuse appears frequently in the novel. Violence towards women, violence within the prison system between inmates and between inmates and guards, and then there’s violence of the state towards those who disagree with government policies. We see the latter through Max’s new-found activism, and his refusal to listen to Marco’s warnings concerning the very real possibility of violence at the G-8 protest. Marco has moved on from activism–hence the PI work, as it’s an arena he can control. Max, however, is eager to attend the protests–even though it’s guaranteed to turn violent, and Max, middle-aged and overweight, will make an easy target. Here’s Marco warning Max about the realities of prison and finding yourself in the hands of the State:

“Back in the days when grassing up your comrades was just getting to be the height of fashion, those involved in armed struggle began to lose any trust they had ever had in one another. So every time one of them went to see the doctor, the prison governor, or the prison admin office, he had to be accompanied by a fellow comrade just to make sure he didn’t cut a deal with the cops. But in the end they always found a way.”

“So?”

“Torture had fuck-all to do with it. The only thing they were afraid of was doing time and growing old behind bars. They got off lightly, every last one of them.”

“I can’t see what you’re driving at.”

“You can understand and forgive someone who talks because his nuts are in a vice. Anybody can have a moment’s weakness, but ratting is something else. So before you get yourself in trouble it’s best to work out whether or not you have the balls to do prison.”

Carlotto’s novels are lean, hard-boiled and devoid of sentimentality. Marco, Rossini, and Max are the good guys here, but their methods are unorthodox, illegal, and very violent. There are no rules for these men; they do what is necessary to solve the case, and in this instance, the mystery surrounding the missing S & M model, turns even their stomachs. There’s no sense of do-gooding here–it’s more a matter of clearing out cockroaches. Since Marco operates in his own criminal world with underworld contacts, the police are always in the periphery of Marco’s shady world. While Marco is the brains of the outfit, Rossini is the enforcer who clearly enjoys his work. Marco admits:

The rule is that when you need information, first you ask nicely and then you break bones. Face it, it’s a method we use, too. Intimidation, violence, and blackmail are the only techniques for making people talk.

At just 179 page, The Master of Knots, part of Europa Edition’s World Noir series, is a slim, quick, and enjoyable read. There were a couple of gruesome moments but the details were not slobbered over. Finally,  I loved the character of Donatella Morganti. Marco finds her extremely attractive–until she opens her mouth, so just a touch of humour slips into the story. Anyway, another engaging entry in a good series.

Translated by Christopher Woodall.

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Voices by Dacia Maraini

Voices from Italian author Dacia Maraini is the story of a radio personality who becomes swept up in the investigation surrounding the murder of her neighbour. As a crime novel, it’s interesting and different, and that’s partly due to the characters involved and partly due to the fact that the main character never sees herself as a sleuth.

VoicesMichela Canova  returns home from a work-related trip to Marseilles and immediately picks up the vibe that something is wrong; the doorkeeper and her husband are absent from their usual positions at the porter’s lodge, and there’s a strong smell of disinfectant in the air. Michela learns that her neighbor was murdered five days earlier, “twenty stab wounds in a frenzied attack.” Nothing was stolen and there are no indications that anyone broke into the apartment located on the building’s top floor. The conclusion is that the victim opened the door to the killer on the night of her death. In the aftermath of the shocking news, Michela tries to dredge up memories of the dead girl:

A woman living behind the door opposite to mine and I did not even know her name. I would meet her sometimes in the lift. I would look at her much as one looks at someone in a train or a bus, with a feeling of guilt for my ill-manner curiosity.

The murdered girl, Angela Bari, led a strange life. She was supposedly a part-time actress, but she seemed unemployed, so how did she manage to live so well? Why did she keep a strange schedule, returning home so late at night? When Michela, who is especially talented when it comes to voice recognition, listens to her answering machine, she’s certain that Angela left two interrupted messages. Already deeply troubled and feeling involved in the murder of Angela Bari due to proximity and a feeling of guilt that she failed to befriend her neighbor, Michela becomes obsessed with finding the truth about the dead girl. Coincidentally, the director of the radio station, Michela’s boss asks Michela to create a “series of forty programmes about crimes against women.” The programme is designed to appeal to the station’s women listeners as well as address the social issue and the shocking statistic that “65 percent of crimes against women go unpunished.” Michela takes the job and while she is supposed to be working on the issue of crime against women from a broad perspective, most of her efforts are directed towards the life and death of Angela Bari.

Michela isn’t a detective, but she rapidly discovers some glaring inconsistencies about Angela’s life; everyone seems to have a different opinion about who and what she was, and there are times when Michela wonders if people are even talking about the same girl:

Something about her light and heedless way of walking worries me; without my wishing it, Angela Bari has entered into my thoughts and pitched camp, waiting even though I cannot really imagine what she could possibly expect from me.

Perhaps the most bizarre statements come from Angela Bari’s own family–the very people who are expected to have known her the best. Angela’s sister, Ludovica Bari took her sweet time arriving at the Angela’s apartment when she was notified of her sister’s death, and she “seemed more irritable than grief-stricken.” According to Ludovica, Angela was “mentally ill.” Angela’s mother, a neurotic recluse, isn’t interested in solving her daughter’s murder and argues, while passing the chocolates, that “one should leave the dead in peace.” Angela’s smooth, charismatic boyfriend, Carlini tells Michela that people “are made up of so many different strands, so many different layers of truth.” and that Angela was full of contradictions.

The novel swings back and forth from Michela’s focus on Angela’s case to crimes against women in general–with the constant motif of voices. Michela trusts her knowledge of voices, but in this case, is she correct? Those interviewed all have their own interpretation of who Angela was, but when one steps into “the relationships between members of a nuclear family, ” one walks through a tangled, murky “minefield.”  Voices is not a suspenseful, action-packed read, and instead, while there are periodic threats, there’s an underlying philosophical thread about women as victims of violence and crime as a social phenomenon. Here’s Michela mulling over a crime novel by Patricia Highsmith:

I am curious about her as a feminine misogynist and intrigued by her understanding of crime. What is it that drives the hidden demon, this fiercely ironic writer seems to be asking; is it the inescapable pain we carry sewn into our heart as if it were a secret pocket, or is it a loss of moral responsiveness? Is crime a disease, and how do we get it?

Voices is not perfect. While the motif of voices is used repeatedly in the novel to good effect, the author tries to make a larger statement about violence towards women, and this is too big a subject for this book so the attempt is only partly successful. Some of the book’s message about violence towards women comes through the character of Adele Sofia, Commissioner of Police, but there are passages in which Michela reads case summary after case summary of the unsolved brutal crimes against women and children. While Michela’s research into the subject of violence towards women is a nice segue into the investigation of Angela’s death, the information load detailing various crimes doesn’t add a lot to the plot.

Angela Bari is dead when the novel begins, and yet she remains a strong, yet strangely and sadly elusive presence throughout the course of the book. Michela’s connection with her neighbor makes for an intriguing, not gripping, read. While the solution of the murder is of paramount importance to Michela, the book at times includes some anticlimactic moments which seem deliberately created to veer this book away from nail-biting suspense. As a crime novel, it’s another example of how an author can tackle crime through a different, refreshing perspective.

Translated by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood

Review copy

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Montalbano’s First Case by Andrea Camilleri

“The Japanese tourists were competing in an all-out war, using the weapons of lethal politeness to compete for window space to take pictures. At the second stop, the driver has to get up to help an old couple of about a hundred onto the bus.”

For light relief, I turn to the Inspector Montalbano crime novel series written by Andrea Camilleri. Salvo Montalbano is one of my favourite detectives–he is not an alcoholic, and neither is he burned out and world-weary. In fact, Montalbano, who adores good food and loves life, is a refreshing change. The Montalbano novels are light on violence, gore is absent, and instead the novels fly on Montalbano’s humour, his sense of justice, and a supporting cast of quirky characters. It doesn’t hurt that these novels are set in Vigata, a fictional coastal town in Sicily and that Montalbano lives in a house (we’d all love to live in) that commands a fantastic ocean view. Reading a Montalbano novel is pure pleasure and a return to a life we wouldn’t mind sharing. Montalbano has a unique approach to crime solving, and while political corruption should be his largest stumbling block, Montalbano doesn’t bother fighting the corruption, but instead he subverts it until the corrupt system moves in the direction he wants it to go.

Montalbano's first caseMontalbano’s First Case, is the prequel to the series,  it’s 1985, and 35 year-old Salvo Montalbano is at an important crossroads in his career. Montalbano is under apprenticeship as “deputy of Mascalippa,” a small town in the Erean Mountains. While many people would love to work in this picturesque area, Montalbano hates it and considers the mountain air positively unhealthy.  He knows that he’ll be transferred soon, and he longs to move to the coast. Of course, for those familiar with the series you know that Montalbano gets what he wants, and he’s transferred to Vigata. He arrives there fresh from the tutelage of Chief Inspector Libero Sanfillipo, a man who knew “how to keep his inner balance in the face of serious and upsetting events.” Sanfillipo advises Montalbano:

If you let yourself be overrun by your emotions, by dismay, horror, indignation, and empathy, you’re completely fucked.

For those who’ve already read some of the Inspector Montalbano series, then you’ll recognize that Montalbano followed his mentor’s advice–not always so successfully, because Montalbano has a temper and a short fuse when it comes to dealing with frustration and incompetence.

Montalbano can’t believe his luck when he hears that he’s being posted to Vigata. The brand new Chief Inspector already has a history with the region, and so he’s delighted to return to an area he knows and loves. Of course the transfer means that he’ll be farther from his long-term girlfriend, but the relationship seems to thrive on personal space and distance. He’s forewarned that the area is managed by two mafia families: the Cuffaros and the Sinagras–“each family had its own saint in paradise,”  and in this case that translates to mean that each family has a powerful political representative in their pockets.

Montalbano’s very first scouting trip to Vigata sees him involved in a crime in which the power of the mafia dwarfs the rights of an elderly resident. A seemingly simple traffic accident that morphs into an assault charge forces Montalbano to testify in a fixed case, so Montalbano is instantly educated in the reality of the justice system through a laughable trial that is pure “theater.” But even more than that, Montalbano becomes involved with a strange case involving Rosanna, a local girl, a girl who’s been thrown out of her home by her family for her so-called promiscuous behaviour. The girl who lives, literally, in a pig pen, is an assassin, and yet she appears to have the mental abilities of a 5 year-old. While Montalbano unravels this mystery, somehow or another he has the feeling he’s being played, and since he is never one to settle for the easy solution, he keeps digging….

Montalbano’s First Case is certain to delight fans of this wonderful series. This novella (97 pages according to Amazon) fills in some blanks while showing Montalbano in embryo. All of his key characteristics are there, so we see him keeping his girlfriend at arm’s length, indulging in various  extraordinary gastronomic adventures, and feeling less than content with various aspects of the investigation. Some favourite characters are also here–Fazio and journalist, Zito. We also see how far Montalbano will go to solve a case. He doesn’t care too much about rules and regulations, but there’s a strong sense of justice tempered with compassion, and in this, Montalbano’s First Case, we see just how Montalbano manipulates a corrupt system to get what he wants.

Not surprisingly, Montalbano has transferred well to film, so there’s an entire series of Inspector Montalbano films–including The Young Montalbano which includes this story.

Translated by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa

Review copy.

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To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

 The Dangers of Communication….

As part of my decision to read more New York Review Classics, I picked up To Each His Own written by Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia. To Each His Own begins with the delivery of an anonymous letter to Manno, a mild-mannered, married pharmacist who lives in a small Sicilian town. The letter’s delivery is caught with delightfully precise perfection in the book’s introduction:

“The letter arrived in the afternoon delivery. As usual, the postman laid the parti-colored sheaf of advertising circulars on the counter first; then carefully, almost as if there were some danger of its exploding, the letter. It was a yellow envelope; a small white rectangle bearing the printed address had been pasted on it.”

The anonymous letter, eventually opened by Manno in the presence of the curious postman is a death threat, and as the news of the letter spreads around town, no one–least of all its recipient–can imagine what Manno has done to provoke such behaviour. Sciascia efficiently creates a portrait of Manno, a man who is the embodiment of inoffensive: he’s mild enough to tolerate the postman loitering in his shop and ogling his letter, he’s spent a lifetime avoiding politics, and even a mention of Manno’s wife “the unbeautiful, slightly faded, slightly slovenly woman” hints at Manno’s ability to absorb domestic unpleasantness for the sake of peace and quiet.

Everyone who hears of the letter is convinced it’s a joke, and this collective reaction again endorses Manno as an inoffensive man; what could he possibly have done, what offense could he have committed that would provoke such a violent threat? It seemed impossible, and Manno finally settles, a little uncomfortably, on the idea that whoever sent the letter must be jealous of his prowess as a hunter.

The news that Manno has been murdered–along with his long-time hunting companion, Dr Roscio stuns the townspeople, but gradually a fiction is created that Manno was a secret adulterer and that Dr Roscio, an innocent man “caught in the middle”  was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the fiction builds,  rumours spread throughout town. Manno is gradually blamed for Roscio’s death, and a few other townspeople become necessary victims to the fiction and unsavoury tales that circulate–all unsubstantiated. Judgement is silently passed and everyone agrees that Manno received an anonymous death threat because he deserved it.

There’s a general mood of complacency in town towards the murders, and there’s also a great deal of speculation concerning the beautiful, ripe widow Roscio. Surely she won’t go to waste now that her husband is dead? The future amorous adventures of the widow occupy the minds of the townspeople while the murders, so unusual in this town fade from interest. Only Professor Laurana feels uneasy about the crime, but then he catches a clue about the letter’s origin. The clue is so obvious, and yet no one else seems interested. Laurana decides to take matters into his own hands….

To Each His Own starts out as a murder mystery (and an intriguing one) with Laurana as the amateur detective, but it very quickly becomes apparent that Sciascia is much more interested in the town’s reaction to the crime than its solution. After Laurana discovers the first clue, he cannot conceive that it’s been ‘missed’ by the police, and “out of vanity” he begins a very simple, informal investigation–just asking a few questions here and there. As Laurana rather ploddingly picks his way from one clue to another, the solution is right in front of his nose (and ours), but Laurana seems to not want that solution, and so he continues with his clumsy sleuthing. And it’s through Laurana’s refusal to at first believe the evidence right in front of his eyes that it becomes clear that his quest for the truth is more than a matter of crime solving. Laurana investigates not just the crime but his entire belief system. Laurana discovers that no one is what they seem, left and right politics no longer have any meaning, and instead all political positions have congealed into a rotting stew of self-serving corruption. Laurana is sucked into solving the crime; he cannot resist:

“But however he revolved the affair, turning it this way or that, it possessed some equivocal, ambiguous element, even though the relationships of cause and effect were still unclear, as were those of the protagonists among themselves and those details in the mechanism of the crime that he knew to be facts. And in that equivocation, that ambiguity, he felt himself morally and sensually involved.”

As the novel’s meta meaning moves beyond the entertaining plot into social commentary, To Each His Own becomes a powerful examination of Italian society, its passivity towards power and corruption, and the danger of asking too many questions, yes “it’s dangerous to nose about.” Indeed communication plays an important role in the novel–beginning with the anonymous letter, and continuing through Laurana’s questions.

Here’s one of my favourite passages from the book. It’s a scene in which Laurana meets a character called Benito, and the scene takes place in Benito’s impressive library. Benito admits to Laurana that he never leaves the house:

“Haven’t for some years. At one point in my life, I made a few quite precise calculations: if I leave the house in search of the company of one intelligent person, one honest person, I run the risk of meeting en route a dozen thieves and half as many idiots who stand poised to communicate to me their views on mankind, the national government, the city administration, Morovia…Does it seem to you worth the trouble?”

“No actually not.”

“And then I am very comfortable at home, especially here.” He pointed to the books and gestured as if to gather them all to him.

“A fine library,” Laurana said.

“Not that I can always avoid stumbling into thieves and idiots even here. I’m speaking of writers, obviously, not their characters. But I easily get rid of them. I return them to the bookshop or I present them to the first fool who comes to call on me.”

Benito choses to communicate with the world rarely. In his library “everything that happens in town … is pure theatre.”  Isolated from society, Benito maintains his integrity and avoids corruption. Laurana’s journey towards the truth is so difficult because he encounters corruption on every level. This corruption is a mental stumbling block more than anything else, and then again, the bachelor Laurana who’s shielded from the world by his mother, falls under the spell of a woman. Society is infused with poison; love is both corrupted and corrosive, and gossip taints with innuendo. Truth is the ultimate victim.

The introduction by W.S. DI Piero outlines Sciascia’s life and argues that he “used storytelling as an instrument for investigating and attacking the ethos of a culture–the insular, mafia-saturated culture of Sicily–which he believed to be a metaphor of the world.” I wouldn’t presume to understand the intricacies of the Italian political/criminal scene; it’s vast and complex and probably best understood by the Italians. The introduction mentions that Sciascia was  a great movie fan, and that’s interesting as the book’s very first paragraphs made me think of Le Corbeau.

Translated by Adrienne Foulke.

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Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri

“The inspector contemplated his superior’s disturbing hairdo, which was very full with a great big tuft in the middle that curled back like certain turds deposited in the open country. An exact replica of the coif of that criminally insane psychiatrist who’d triggered all the butchery in Bosnia.”

I am currently reading the 13th novel in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, Germinal, and if you have read the novel, you know it’s about French miners–French miners in the 19th century who slave under the most horrendous, unsafe conditions and barely make enough to eat. Well if that sounds downright depressing, you’d be right, and so I decided I needed something to read along with Germinal–something a little lighter. And so I turned to Andrea Camilleri’s novel, Voice of the Violin.

Voice of the Violin is the fourth novel in the Sicilian Inspector Montalbano mysteries. As I write this, I realize that it probably sounds odd to pick an Italian crime novel set in Sicily as ‘light’ reading, but that will probably give you a fair idea of the sort of crime novel Camilleri writes. Light on violence, no gore, & heavy on the humour which is mainly found in the protagonist, Salvo Montalbano.

Voice of the Violin is, so far at least, the weakest in the series. Bear in mind I’ve only read four, and funnily enough, the third novel, The Snack Thief, was the best to date.

In Voice of the Violin,  Montalbano investigates the murder of a beautiful young socialite. She is found naked, with her head shoved down into the mattress, and the autopsy reveals that she was suffocated–possibly during sex. While Montalbano painstakingly pieces together the woman’s last hours, he runs into a few stumbling blocks. The woman, Michela Licalzi, was married to a wealthy doctor, but to complicate matters, she led an almost completely separate life from her spouse and she had a lover.

Montalbano knows the victim’s identity, has the crime scene, but vital pieces of information are missing. Where are the victim’s clothes, for example?

As the investigation continues, Montalbano rubs shoulders with some helpful mafiosa who’d really like to buy his soul and butts head with a macho, corrupt Captain from the Flying Squad. Meanwhile he juggles the investigation with his troubled personal life. Still involved in his long-distance relationship with long-time lover, Livia, he faces temptation from Michela’s best friend.

With police detective series novels, it’s always a juggling act , and a fine balance must be maintained between the crime and the series detective. After all, we readers become fond of the series detective–that’s why we keep reading. In Voice of the Violin, while the crime doesn’t fade, the victim does. And although a few details of Michela’s life emerge, her corpse seems little more than a plot device to kick the story into action.  But perhaps I am still feeling the after-effects of reading Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open–a novel in which a police detective practically merges his own identity with the victim…..

Of course, Montalbano is strongly present: grumpy, unpredictable, naked at times and always in search of the next gastronomic indulgence. Well, I have more Montalbano mysteries on my shelf, and I expected some to be better than others. In Voice of the Violin, Montalbano makes some huge errors, and he admits this, but at the same time, he battles police corruption in his own inimitable way–by rolling with it and playing the game with just enough underhand craftiness combined with bureaucratic finesse that he gets his way–eventually.

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