Tag Archives: Pushkin Vertigo

The King of Fools: Frédéric Dard (1952)

“Poor Ivanhoe,” she sighed. “You have no idea what fools heroes can be.”

In Frédéric Dard’s novel of nightmarish obsession, The King of Fools, Jean-Marie Valaise is on a solo holiday in Juan-les-Pins. It was a holiday he’d intended to take with his long-term girlfriend, the elegant, self-contained and uber self controlled Denise:

I should have been with Denise. but we had broken off just two days before leaving, on some petty pretext. For a moment, I had considered cancelling my trip, but then decided the Côte d’Azur would be a timely distraction, and left anyway. I regretted it now. Holiday resorts are best approached in a happy frame of mind, or they can seem more depressing than all the rest. Truth be told, my sorrow was not acute. Rather, I experienced a feeling of intense disenchantment that left me weak and vulnerable. I felt the nagging torment of physical regret too. With Denise, the act of love had been easy, and reassuring. 

One day, Jean-Marie sees a woman getting into his car. The incident turns out to have been a mistake, but the woman, who didn’t leave a wholly favorable impression, left a bag with a thousand francs inside. That night, Jean-Marie spots the woman at a local casino. She seems, for this second meeting, to be almost a totally different person, elegant, beautiful and cultured. Jean-Marie, normally a cautious man when it comes to money, throws discretion to the winds, gambles and loses, but no matter, soon he’s chatting and half in love with Marjorie Faulks, the Englishwoman he met earlier that day.

King of Fools

Jean-Marie meets Marjorie a third time when she invites herself into his hotel room while he’s in the shower. While Jean-Marie’s awkwardness is smooched over by Marjorie, still the incident seems bizarre. She breaks the news that she’s married, but Jean-Marie, who’s decided that Marjorie is bitterly unhappy, pulls her in his arms for a kiss. They part, but promise to write….

Denise shortly shows up at the resort and quickly sniffs out Jean-Marie’s mood. After all they’ve been together for years, and they have a strong commitment to each other as friends but not as lovers. They break up a couple of times every year, and yet always get back together. Jean-Marie’s feelings for Marjorie are different: it’s intense, an obsession he can’t control.

After a letter from Marjorie, Jean-Marie dashes off to Scotland where he sinks into an abyss of deception, but not before Denise warns him that he thinks he’s some sort of hero leaving to ‘rescue’ Marjorie, and that it will end badly.

While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the character of Marjorie (she’s a cipher), I was convinced that Jean-Marie, a man whose passions up to this moment had been tepid and controlled, could totally lose it on holiday. Passion unexpectedly overwhelms him; it’s a new feeling, and although there are plenty of warning signs, he doesn’t pay attention. Jean-Marie’s life, a life in which passion takes a back seat to common sense, is completely derailed when he meets Marjorie. This largely happens because his guard is down, and Marjorie has a sly way of trespassing without seeming to do so.

Most of the action takes place in a dreary Edinburgh, with the weather matching the atmosphere of the novel. There’s a large cat-and-mouse section, and Jean-Marie’s life descends into an almost surreal kind of hell, with the novel’s great, ironic twist, in common with many titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, arriving at the end.

For those interested, here’s a list of Dard books read so far in order of preference

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

The King of Fools

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

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Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

The Executioner Weeps: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“She’d sprung from the night, just for me.”

Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint continues to impress with The Executioner Weeps from Frédéric Dard. This latest Dard novel follows on the heels of Bird in a Cage, The Wicked Go to Hell, and Crush. The King of Fools is due to be released in the US in September, 2017.

In The Executioner Weeps, Daniela successful French artist is in Spain on a working holiday when late one night, on a remote lonely road, his car hits a beautiful young woman. She has no identification, no luggage–except for a now crushed violin. Daniel suspects that this young woman may possibly have thrown herself under the car. Since he’s miles from civilization and the woman’s injuries are fairly superficial, Daniel decides to take her back to Casa Patricio, a modest beachside hotel located near Barcelona, and proceed from there. When the woman wakes up, she’s suffering from amnesia.

The executioner weeps

For the first half of the book, Daniel spends time trying to discover the woman’s identity. He knows that her first name begins with M, and together they try various M names on for size. Eventually as shards of memory return, the woman settles on Marianne which she is sure is her name. Thrown together by circumstance, it isn’t long before Daniel falls in love with Marianne–even though common sense should tell him otherwise.

I was living the dream that all men have of loving a woman without a past.

He contacts the French embassy, the police, every institution he can think of, but everyone is disinterested in Marianne’s plight and Daniel’s dilemma. The consensus seems to be that someone will eventually come looking for this stunning young woman…

Daniel’s dilemma deepens when he receives a letter concerning an upcoming exhibition is America. He decides to stop waiting for something to happen and using the labels in Marianne’s clothing, he sets out to discover her past himself. Soon he wishes he hadn’t.

This is as much of the plot in this splendid, tightly written noir that I’m going to reveal. The tale begins with a central mystery–the identity of the young woman–Daniel spends half the novel trying to discover the truth and half the novel trying to evade it. The plot, with its sense of creeping dread and impending doom, raises many questions about the nature of love: idealisation, self-deceit, corruption and the love object. Is Daniel protecting Marianne or is he protecting his ideal?

Significantly Daniel decides to paint a portrait of Marianne:

What I set out to show was what I could see in her. She surrendered slowly, easing herself out of her own personality to become what I wanted her to be. I no longer separated my creation from my model. I took a human being and spread it out on a surface that had no limits. 

But when the painting is finished, Daniel is disturbed by the results:

From a painterly point of view, it was first rate. Yet I didn’t like it, because with this particular canvas something strange had happened. I had succeeded in capturing Marianne’s most unguarded expression so well that I could read her character better in my painting than in her face. Now, in the come-hither look in her eye with which she stared at me I detected a bizarre glint which quite disconcerted me. There was a sparkle in it which didn’t seem to belong with the rest of her: it encapsulated a level of sustained attentiveness which was almost disturbing in its intensity.  

The truth, when Daniel finally discovers it, is devastating, and every step he takes just draws him into a sticky web from which there is no escape. There’s a thematic connection here to Vertigo in the way the author explores just how far we will go to maintain fictional narratives that feed our desires and egos.

For  those interested, here’s my Dard order of preference so far:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

Review copy

Translated by David Coward

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Death Going Down: María Angélica Bosco (1955)

“That’s what happens to people who go out at night. Just look how they end up.”

I’ve posted previously on the crime books from Pushkin Vertigo. So far there have been some marvelous reads for crime fans: She Who Was No More, Vertigo, The Disappearance of Signora Chiara and several Frédéric Dard titles (all highly recommended by the way). Vertigo has also released a number of a number of novels from Augusto de Angelis–all much more standard police procedurals. Given the rather dramatic division between the book types (makes me think of Simeon’s Romans Durs vs. his Maigret novels), I’ve formed two figurative piles of books with the Augusto de Angelis on the left and all the other Vertigo titles on the right. That brings me to Death Going Down (original title: La Muerte Baja en Ascensor) from María Angélica Bosco–a police procedural that I’m going to place in the left stack with the Augusto de Angelis novels. However, I’ll add a caveat to that decision later.

death-going-down

Death Going Down opens on a cold night in Buenos Aires as Pancho Soler arrives home drunk to his apartment house. It’s an atmospheric scene as Soler stumbles from his car into the lobby of the building. He has just three minutes of light in the lobby (a regulation we’re told) and he makes it to the lift but sees it’s already in use.

All of a sudden he noticed that the lift shaft had filled with light and at the same moment, as if choreographed, the lobby plunged into darkness.

Someone had come down in the lift. He could make out a blurry shape on the other side of the door. Still leaning on the wall, Pancho moved to one side to make way for the person in the lift but the door remained stubbornly closed. All he could see was the shadow puppet outline of a shape curled up in the corner.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Soler opens the door and discovers a dead blonde in the lift. The police arrive, the residents gather, and the investigation begins. …

Death Going Down, a prize-winning crime novel, was published in 1955, and the story’s emphasis is the duplicitous lives lead by those in the apartment house along with the idea that the investigation is clouded by the number of immigrants involved. These relative newcomers to Argentina from Europe have lives shrouded in mystery. Are they victims of the nazis fleeing for their lives or do they have pasts they wish to escape from? And herein lies my hesitation in placing Death Going Down in that figurative left pile of Vertigo titles. Yes it is a police procedural but the refugees & immigrants, flotsam and jetsam from WWII still bring the war to Argentina’s shores a decade later, and that’s a nice twist.

There’s a solid assortment of suspects: playboy Pancho Soler, Dr Adolfo Luchter, caretakers Andrés and his bitter wife, Aurora Torres (she hopes the murder victim is the resident she likes the least,) the invalid Señor Iñarra and his family, the abrasive Bulgarian (former resident of Germany) Czerbó and his long-suffering sister Rita, and of course, the murder victim’s husband who married his wife by proxy.

There are three police figures in the book: Inspector Ericourt, Superintendent Lahore, and detective Blasi (my favourite of the three). That’s rather a lot of policemen for a 160 page book, and the result was that I was unable to get a firm grasp on any of their characters–although Blasi is the strongest drawn of the three. Here’s his approach to crime:

What do you do when you’re standing in front of a painting? You adopt different positions until you get the best perspective.

These days a common complaint about crime books is that they are too fleshed out with extraneous detail. In Death Going Down,  the opposite is true, and while I can’t give away spoilers, the plot would have benefitted from further explanation of the past connections between the characters.

Finally, the author made mention of what happened to the victim’s dog, and this was a nice little touch to the tale.

Review copy

Translated by Lucy Greaves

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Crush: Frédéric Dard (1959)

“And you will never know how big that green car seemed, or how deliciously it smelt of America.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues its very impressive output of unusual crime books through another venture into Frédéric Dard territory with a third title: Crush, a tale of longing, obsession, and murder. The double meaning of the title becomes horribly clear around the book’s halfway point.

crush

Bird in a Cage and The Wicked Go To Hell earlier Dard releases from Pushkin Vertigo, were both told by a male narrator. In Crush, we have a seventeen year old female narrator, Louise, who lives in Northern France in a very unpleasant town named Léopoldville. The place is ugly, dominated by a large chemical factory, “chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke that seem to stretch up into the sky for ever before falling back down on the town below,” and the air stinks of cabbage. Things aren’t much better at Louise’s home; she lives with a mother she’s ashamed of and her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur, in a wreck of a rented home.

In common with most of the other people in the town, Louise works in a factory. In order to glam up her dull life, Louise, who longs for escape, begins walking through the moneyed areas of Léopoldville and is entranced by glimpses of the lives of an affluent American couple, Mr and Mrs Rooland. She begins dawdling outside of their home:

At first sight, it looked like the others: two storeys, an arrowshaped weathervane sitting on top of the gable roof, with little stained glass windows and some steps leading up to a front door flanked by light-blue earthenware pots… But what set it apart was a funny sort of feeling that floated in the air around the house. How can I explain it? It seemed like it was somewhere else. Yes, it was a Léopoldville house, but it existed on a sort of desert island all of its own. A tiny, mysterious island, and one where the natives seemed to live bloody well too.

Walking by this house becomes a habit for Louise. She sees the Roolands relaxing on a swing seat sipping whisky at dusk while jazz music plays as background noise.

I can’t tell you how enchanting the atmosphere of that garden was, with the beautiful, shining car, that music, those drinks that you could tell were wonderfully chilled, and that couple, gently swinging while the seat creaked. 

One day, after being slapped by Arthur, Louise gathers the courage to approach the Roolands and she asks them if they want a maid, a rare commodity in Léopoldville, as factory work pays better than domestic service. The Roolands employ Louise, but the dream life Louise saw from the outside doesn’t really exist. The house is a disorganized mess, and Mrs Rooland has a drinking problem. …

Louise, our somewhat unreliable narrator, tells the story in retrospect, in an intimate, near confessional style. As she digs into the Rooland household, managing to live-in and proving through her hard work that she’s indispensable, the spectre of the Roolands returning to America clouds any future fantasies.  Dard includes some foreshadowing, some intense, dramatic scenes of violent weather that match the narrative, and rather ironically, IMO, the American car (s) play a huge role in this tale of betrayal and revenge. To say more would spoil the tale for the next reader, but fans of the Pushkin Vertigo line should enjoy this. Of the three Dard novels released to date, The Wicked Go To Hell is my favourite.

Review copy

Translated by Daniel Seton

(original French title: Les Scélérats)

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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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Bird in a Cage: Frédéric Dard (1961)

Last year, Pushkin Press launched their new Vertigo line with some impressive titles: Vertigo (naturally), The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, and She Who was No More All three novels can be categorized as crime–no argument there, but each one was unusual in some unique way. The Pushkin Vertigo foreword, with the tantalizing sentence, “Whose dark or troubled mind will you set into next?” promised an emphasis on the psychological, and these three titles certainly fit the bill. I then read The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses which were police procedurals and much more standard novels… I began to wonder if Pushkin Press could continue with the early promise of the unique Vertigo line–were there enough previously ‘undiscovered’ (read untranslated into English) crime novels to feed this imprint? And then I read Frédéric Dard’s  Bird in a Cage. This is a noir novel in which the main character, the narrator, Albert, finds himself embroiled in a disorienting crime, the details of which initially make no sense. Maneuvered by the fickle hand of fate, he becomes a pawn in the perfect crime.

bird in a cage

Our narrator, Albert, returns home to Levallois after an absence of six years. It’s a dreary, depressing homecoming to the grim little flat his mother lived and died in.

I sat down in the old armchair next to the window where she always did the darning and looked around at the silence, the smell and all the old things that had lain waiting for me. The silence and the smells had greater reality for me than the damp-streaked wallpaper.

Albert’s mother died 4 years before, but her mattress is still rolled up on the bed, and there’s a “glass for the holy water and the sprig of blessed palm.” Albert mentions that he only heard about his mother’s death when he received her funeral notice. Why didn’t he return home? Where has he spent the last six years? The answers to those questions are revealed later in the novel and are integral to the plot, so no reveal here…

So a depressing homecoming for Albert. There’s no one to welcome him; his only relative, his mother is dead, and to top off the sense of heavy loss, it’s Christmas Eve. Albert has returned at the height of the holiday season. Outside, the streets are noisy and full of life, and Albert decides to join the holiday makers, but being surrounded by joy makes him feel worse:

The narrow streets of Levallois were full of happy people. They were knocking off work bearing Christmas supplies and thronged around open-air stalls where fishmongers shucked bucket-loads of oysters under wreaths of coloured lights.

The delis and cake shops were packed. A limping paperhawker zigzagged from one pavement to the other calling out the news, but nobody gave a damn.

Acting on an impulse which Albert later identifies as a desire to recapture his childhood, he stops at a small shop and buys a Christmas decoration–“a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust.” Inside the cage is a bird made of velvet. For some reason Albert can’t identify, the purchase lifts his spirits and then later, he wanders into a restaurant where he catches the eye of a very attractive woman who’s there with her daughter. …

That’s as much of the plot that I’m going to discuss. This evening, which begins with loneliness, blends into bittersweet memories and ends in murder. Albert finds himself neck-deep in a web of intrigue and deceit, embroiled in the outcome of a bitterly unhappy marriage. The Christmas decoration which Albert bought on a whim is integral to the mystery, and this tiny object marks a turning point in the tale. While the decoration is a very literal object, it also symbolizes Albert, and that significance becomes poignantly obvious when the tale ends. As with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, the ending is left to the reader’s discretion–the nightmare hasn’t ended, and some mysteries do not have a definitive ending.

I was delighted to discover the prolific  Frédéric Dard, and even more delighted to learn that Vertigo will be releasing several other titles by this author: The Wicked Go to Hell, Crush, and The Executioner Weeps. Bird in a Cage is highly recommended for those who like crime/noir novels from an unusual view with an emphasis on the psychological.

Review copy

Translated by David Bellos (original title: Le Monte-Charge). The book is also apparently titled The Switch.

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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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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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She Who Was No More: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (1952)

After reading Vertigo and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, both books from Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo imprint, I couldn’t resist plunging into She Who Was No More. For film fans, She Was No More was made into Les Diaboliques–a far more appropriate title for a wicked tale of adultery, devilish deception and murder

she who was no moreThe book opens with travelling salesman Ferdinand Ravinel waiting, with his mistress, Lucienne, for the arrival of Ravinel’s wife Mireille. Lucienne has lured Mireille to this spot, a house in Nantes, in order to murder her. Ravinel and Mireille have only been married for five years, and this cold, calculating plot to murder Mireille and collect the life insurance has consumed the last two of those years. After they collect the insurance money, the plan is that Lucienne & Ravinel will move to Antibes where Lucienne, a doctor, will then buy a medical practice. But Ravinel is supposed to get a payoff too:

He gazed at a shining carafe which magnified a piece of bread till it looked more like a sponge. Antibes … A smart shop–for he was to set up on his own too. In the window would be air guns for underwater shooting and all the gear for frogmen. Rich customers. And, with the sea in front and the sunshine, your mind would be full of pleasant, easy thoughts that didn’t make you feel guilty. Banished the fogs of the north. Everything would be different. He himself would be a different man. Lucienne had promised he would. As though seeing the future in a crystal, Ravinel saw himself sauntering along the beach road in white flannels. His face was tanned. People turned to look at him.

Lucienne met Mireille, became her physician, and even moved in with the married couple at one point. Imagine the married couple, Ravinel and Mireille, as a fundamentally unhealthy organism and Lucienne as the disease that moves in and takes over. Lucienne is a repellent character–utterly cold-blooded, a seemingly nerveless creature, and yet underneath “her outward coolness, you could see she was strung up and anxious.”

Strange how unfeminine she was. Even when they made love… How had she ever became his mistress? Which of them had really chosen the other. At first she had taken no notice of him, behaved almost as if he wasn’t there. She had seemed only interested in Mireille and she had treated her more like a friend than a patient. They were the same age, those two.

Obviously Lucienne, who has a much more forceful personality than Ravinel, appeals to his worst characteristics. An underachiever, he’s weak and unhappy with his life for reasons he can’t identify. He describes Mireille as a “nice little thing. Insignificant, however,” and yet from Ravinel’s thoughts, we get a picture of a woman who’s a good wife and rather pleasant (much more pleasant than Lucienne).  Ravinel doesn’t even like Lucienne; she has several habits he loathes–including the way she devours her meat almost raw. There’s none of the grand passion/lust found in other stories with a similar frame–I’m thinking here of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity For Ravinel, sex with either Lucienne or Mireille is a bit of a let-down. With Lucienne, sex is almost surgical; it’s “brief, hasty intercourse, sometimes on a consultation room couch, within a yard of an enameled trolley on which stainless-steel instruments were laid out under a sheet of gauze.”

On the sexual side, things had not gone any better with Mireille than with Lucienne. Possibly it was his own fault. Lack of experience. Or had it been his luck to come upon nothing but frigid women. Mireille had done her best to pretend, but he had never been taken in. She had remained completely unmoved, even when she had clutched at him with an ardor that was meant to be ecstatic. As for Lucienne, she had never bothered to pretend. Love-making left her cold, icy cold, if it didn’t positively irritate her. That was the difference between them. Mireille took her duties seriously, and it was a wife’s duty to respond in the flesh. Strange that she couldn’t succeed. She was so feminine, so human, that there ought to have been a streak of sensuality in her somewhere.

Ravinel has a wife he likes but he undervalues and a mistress he’s terrified of disobeying. Quite a dilemma for the man who plans to murder the former in order to be with the latter.

The emphasis in She Who Was No More is on the psychological aspects of murder, and we see the story through Ravinel’s perspective as he rationalizes and justifies his actions. At one point, he says that in a way, it’s Mireille’s “own fault” they have to murder her after which he immediately tries to make himself the victim while carrying her unconscious body. Murdering Mireille is just a way, or so Ravinel thinks, of reinventing himself into the man he’d like to be. Once the crime is committed, everything begins to fall apart, and Ravinel, already established as an inherently weak character, finds himself, with increasing paranoia, resorting to a childhood vision of the “next world.”

We’re not meant to like anyone here, and it’s that total lack of sentiment which allows the reader to toss aside sympathy and pity and instead concentrate on the puzzle and the paranoia in this tale of the survival of the most wicked.

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Filed under Boileau Pierre & Thomas Narcejac, Fiction

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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Filed under Chiara Piero, Fiction