Tag Archives: Pushkin Vertigo

The Lady Killer: Masako Togawa (1963)

Earlier this year I read Masako Togawa’s The Master Key–a rather claustrophobic novel set in a decaying apartment house. Time to try The Lady Killer also from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo line of crime novels. This novel which pivots on revenge concerns a married Lothario whose approach to casual sex and one-night stands assumes nightmarish proportions as a serial killer hunts women in post WWII Tokyo.

Unhappy, overworked, 19 year-old Keiko Obana is not used to bars or drinking alcohol, but one night, with life stagnant and despressing, she makes the fatal error of entering a bar and drinking too much. She’s easy prey for a man who picks her up, has sex with her and then walks out of her life. It’s a simple one-night stand, casual sex with no repercussions, right? IMO casual sex is an oxymoron–not from a moral point of view, but from a consequences (long-term, short-term) viewpoint. Yes I’m sure that many people manage it effectively but other people are far too brittle and Keiko, a virgin, is one of those brittle people.

the lady killer

Fast forward six months and Keiko, pregnant and alone, commits suicide. Meanwhile the man who seduced her, married Ichiro Honda, continues to lead his double life. With his affluent wife safely stashed in Osaka, he lives in hotel rooms and hides his various disguises, all aimed at the seduction of young, lonely women, in a rented apartment.

Honda had a way with women. He had the faculty of penetrating their psychology at the first meeting. Was the woman interested in the arts? Very well, he would be a musician or a painter. 

Honda is a narcissist. He keeps a detailed journal, “The Huntsman’s Log,” of his conquests and he’s adopted the methods of a killer. He stalks women, and then frequently presents himself as a foreigner, faking a coy vulnerability to catch his prey off guard. When some of the women from his past are murdered, Honda, who really wants to think it’s a coincidence, finds out the hard way that his actions have consequences.

The novel’s premise is intriguing: Honda is a predator who thinks what he does is harmless. He gives women what he decides they want by filling a void in their dull lives. He has no clue about the damage he does, and the serial killer seems to deliver the coup de grâce.

The Lady Killer creates two predators: a serial seducer and a serial killer. The author creates similarities between the Modus Operandi of both emphasizing Honda’s calculated approaches such as “drinking the stale blood” of one woman’s “missed romance” and seeing women as “no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair.” The killer is on the heels of the seducer, and Honda is soon in so deep, he can’t see a way out.

While The Master Key examines the lives of spinsters and widows, The Lady Killer takes a cold hard look at the lives of the lonely women who step out into social life. The novel is strongest for its descriptions of Tokyo night life with its tinsel attractions, where “the aroma of Tokyo seemed to be compounded of darkness and neon.” Unfortunately, for this reader, the story became rather lurid and distasteful in its details and concluded with a long exposition which wrapped up the story.

Review copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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Filed under Fiction, Togawa Masako

The Gravedigger’s Bread: Frédéric Dard (1956)

I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.

Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread is another well crafted, tightly written noir tale from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint. This is a classic tale of adultery and murder. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice but add more twists and turns as ill-fated lovers attempt to outrun Fate.

Gravediggers bread

This short novel takes us right into the heart of our first person narrator’s life. Blaise Delange, a man with a checkered past, unemployed and desperate, has been funded by a friend in order to seek employment at a rubber factory in a provincial town. By the time Blaise arrives, the job is gone. When Blaise finds a wallet stuffed with 8,000 francs, he considers taking it as a “consolation prize,” but then he thinks about the beautiful, sad, badly-dressed blonde woman who dropped the wallet and decides to return it. The owner is Germaine Castain, the wife of the town’s only undertaker. Blaise visits their depressing home and walks into a scene of marital misery.

Then I went up to the door and drove the yellowish little man back into the interior of his shop. The inside was even more wretched than the outside. It was cramped, dim, lugubrious and it smelt of death. 

One look at Achille Castain, an ugly, unhealthy, brutish man old enough to be Germaine’s father, tips Blaise to be careful how he proceeds. Blaise can see that all is not well in the marriage, and so he lies about where he found the wallet. He realises that Germaine can’t possibly love this disgusting man, and yet Achille, rather than treasure a wife that is so much younger and beautiful, abuses her and treats her like an indentured servant. Why did they marry? Why is Germaine, who has no children to consider, staying with this man?

A few hours later, Achille offers Blaise a job, and Blaise, attracted to Germaine and curious about this incongruous marriage, decides to stick around. Turns out that Blaise is a terrific salesman, and soon Blaise, an opportunist, is selling up: talking grieving families into buying fancier coffins which reflect status, guilt, or loss. Achille thinks he knows his customers (after all they all live in this small, dull town), and so he makes the mistake of selling what he thinks the family will spring for, rather than attempt to work on other, latent emotions.

“You see Delange,” he said. We can’t expect anything on the business front here. It will be the second-lowest category and a pauper’s coffin.”

“Why do you foresee that?’

“The fact that it’s the grandfather. That’s ten years now they’ve been spoon-feeding him and changing his sheets three times a day. If they could they’d stick him in the dustbin.”

Soon, there’s an unhealthy, tense, claustrophobic little triangle at the bleak, depressing funeral home with Blaise watching and fantasizing about Germaine, and Achille watching Germaine with suspicions that she has a secret lover….

The Gravedigger’s Bread does not take the conventional path. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but the plot was more complicated, with Fate interacting more capriciously, cynically and cruelly than anticipated.

I’ve read several Dard novels, and here they are in the order of preference:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage.

Crush

The King of Fools

The Gravedigger’s Bread goes straight to the top of the list.

Review copy

Translated by Melanie Florence

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Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

The Master Key: Masako Togawa

“Fate! It can stab you in the back any time, upsetting the most carefully thought out activities. Fate doesn’t care what the upshot is.”

The Master Key from Japanese author Masako Togawa is another entry in the Pushkin Vertigo line. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read several books from this series, and that I’m a huge fan of the Frédéric Dard titles.

The Master Key is set in the bleak, dark K Apartments for Young Ladies. At one time, the rules and regulations regarding occupants and visitors were strict. Men were not allowed to stay overnight, and of course, all the occupants were female. The over 100 occupants are no longer “young ladies” but longtime tenants who are “old maids.” The apartment building is now rundown, and depressing, and its “one hundred and fifty rooms connected by dark corridors into which the sunshine never penetrates,” are representative of the lives of the residents. “The long years have wreaked havoc on both the building and its inhabitants.”  The lives of these women, who were once vibrant and successful, are sad and depressing, and there’s a horrible irony to the name of the building, along with the idea that the residents were once segregated from men in order for their virtue to remain intact.

Here are some of the residents:

Katsuko Tojo, one of the receptionists who has limited mobility.

Noriko Ishiyama, a former art teacher, a mad hoarder who roams the halls at night seeking fishbones to chew

Suwa Yatabe, a violinist whose career was cut short by the mysterious paralysis of a finger

Professor Toyoko Munekata who is devoting herself to completing her husband’s manuscripts.

The building is about to be moved, and this is an event that causes tremendous anxiety and upheaval in the lives of some of its residents. Plus the master key, which opens all 150 rooms is missing, and some of the residents harbour secrets that they are desperate to protect. …

I liked The Master Key, but unfortunately I guessed the central twist early on, so that took the fizz out of the novel’s Big Reveal. The creepy atmosphere of the building and its mostly forgotten residents is well created and the detailed lives of the residents are incredibly sad.

I’d rank it below the Dard novels, Boileau and Narcejac’s Vertigo & She Who Was No More, and Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, but above Resurrection Bay, and the Augusto de Angelis novels. So in other words, somewhere in the middle. But still, it’s wonderful to read some newly translated Japanese crime fiction, and Pushkin Vertigo has another Togawa title for publication: The Lady Killer

Review Copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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Filed under Fiction, Masako Togawa

Resurrection Bay: Emma Viskic

Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, a novel about organised crime and police corruption, is published by Pushkin Press Vertigo, and it’s the first in a series featuring Caleb Zelic. Private Investigator Zelic and Frankie Reynolds, his alcoholic, ex-cop partner specialize in corporate security, and they are hired to investigate a string of warehouse robberies with net losses in the millions.  When the book opens, “Gaz” Senior Constable Marsden, who was moonlighting for Zelic “earning a bit of extra cash,” is brutally executed in his home.

It had been a flash of fuck-I’m-good inspiration over Friday-night beers with Gaz. A solution to a job that was way too big for them. One that Frankie had tried to talk him out of accepting. Why the hell hadn’t he listened to her?

Zelic, who is deaf, received a panicked text from Gaz right before Gaz was murdered, and Zelic is the one who finds Gaz’s brutalized body.  As Frankie and Zelic dig into the case, trying to find a connection between the robberies and Gaz’s murder, they meet a terrified witness. It soon becomes clear that they are on the scent of something big….

Resurrection bay

Zelic, Frankie and Zelic’s ex-wife team up to solve the robbery case and Gaz’s murder. It’s one of those situations where they have little choice. The police are hostile and smell a connection between the murder and Zelic’s drug-dealing brother, and so Zelic and Frankie are squeezed into continuing the investigation even though they are being warned off. Whoever is behind Gaz’s murder makes sure that Zelic and Frankie feel intimidated; they’ve made someone very nervous–someone who doesn’t like loose ends.

Zelic’s deafness, obviously, in his line of work, presents some unique challenges. Viskic shows the casual cruelty heaped upon the disabled, and how Zelic has learned to cope with nastiness, prejudice and the inference that his deafness is often equated with mental deficiency. We also see how Zelic’s deafness has spurred the development of other skills-including the realization that he’s often underestimated.

How to read people’s hands and eyes. How to know when a sideways glance meant he should run, when it meant he should throw the first punch.

Resurrection Bay is getting a lot of good press. With an emphasis on action, the book swerves into thriller territory, which isn’t my favourite crime presentation.  I’ve been impressed with Pushkin’s Vertigo line of crime reads, but contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t wild about this novel. I guessed one of the major baddies from almost the beginning of the book, and then the whole ex-wife thing seemed a little cliched.

This is my second entry in the 2018 reading Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Viskic Emma

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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Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

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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Filed under Bosco María Angélica, Fiction

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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